Thursday, 16 January 2014


I was on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme today, discussing the re-release of The Night Of The Hunter with host Francine Stock and the estimable Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound. you can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (link here), and you'll also hear a fine interview with Thelma Schoonmaker, about editing Wolf Of Wall Street and digital vs. film editing in general, as well as with that film's co-star Jonah Hill. Ours was a lively discussion, the only negative being we all admire the film, so there wasn't the usual diagreement which might have made it a bit edgier! Much of the best talk, as it so often does, took place before the tape was rolling, or had to be lost for space considerations, so I thought I'd just make a few general points about the film.

I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea even today, when it's considered a work of genius—some people find Robert Mitchum's performance theatrical and over the top, and many find the mix of noirish expressionism and fairy tale oddly disconcerting in a Southern Gothic thriller. At the time it must have, as I said on the show, confused people: look at the poster left and ask yourself if you're getting a thriller, a romance, or a western?

I had some of those feelings myself when I first saw the film, but was won over the way great films often do: by getting you to suspend your disbelief, and accept the story the way it is told, the way it appears, on film, as film. And this is where Laughton is so good. There are borrowings, from Griffith as much as Expressionism, from the Grimm Brothers as much as film noir, but it drags you into that world and gives you a child's perspective of it. We are all children in the cinema anyway, and Laughton reminds us of that.

I mention Mitchum's performance, which I think reflects Laughton's own bombast and flamboyance. I'd recalled his Rembrandt, who as played by Laughton became a two-fisted bar-room brawler, a he-man figure who would put Pollock to shame. Laughton was lucky, because Mitchum brought his own brooding sexuality to a role built on fear and hatred of that sexuality, and he played it with a cunning that worked against the somewhat passive character we remember from film noir, from Out Of The Past, helpless in the web of the spider woman.

But Loughton as a theatre director specialised in getting to the disturbed underneath an actor's surface: just before he made his only film as a director, he was coming off a great success with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which Lloyd Nolan, no method actor, played Captain Queeg. I think Mitchum took the freedom Laughton offered and ran with it.

We talked a lot about influences, which got lost apart from my mention of Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood, and John Huston. But you can't have children on the river without Huckleberry Finn springing up, and it's hard to have any southern fiction in the 20th century without the cadence and tone of Faulkner seeping through. You see Davis Grubb in Harper Lee, for example, and you see Hazel Motes in Harry Powell. There's a lot of Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road) too, and at the other end of the spectrum, you might note the epigraphs from Moby Dick which Grubb used in the novel, and think of Melville's other great novel, this one set on a river boat: The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Which describes Powell perfectly. It's significant too that the film is set specifically on the Ohio River, which marks the northern boundary of the South.

We talked about the influence of this film, and I tried to make the wider point of the steamy South as a natural setting for noirish tales of greed and passion. We should have mentioned Winter's Bone, based on Daniel Woodrell's fine novel, in which the dead body underwater plays such a part. You can see the effects of Laughton's style perhaps in David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch. And I see a lot of Mitchum and a bit of Laughton in The Beguiled; not that Don Siegel strove for much in the way of expressionism, but you can compare Eastwood the seducer to Mitchum working on Ruby, the eldest and most vulnerable of Lilian Gish's strays. That scene is shot in an ice cream parlor: even the sign above their heads seems lascivious in context, and Gloria Castilo could be auditioning for Baby Doll or Lolita. In many ways she is the central character in terms of the film's morality: she is the one Lilian Gish may save from the fear of his own need for love.

More doubling: of course Ruby is the opposite reflection of Pearl, whose name recalls Hester Prynne's illegitimate but pure daughter in The Scarlet Letter. I'd mentioned how perfect Sally Jane Bruce is for the role: her's is a doll-like face, Elizabeth McGovern or Molly Ringwald, and of course her doll is central to the story. A few other cast notes: Shelley Winters was in Laughton's acting class in Los Angeles, one senses he knew what he was getting from her. James Gleason, who is so good as Uncle Birdie, actually replaced Emmett Lynn in the role. And Peter Graves is excellent as Ben Harper; he's playing the same sort of character he played in Wagonmaster, only softened by his children, as you might expect in a fairy tale.

And of course there is Lilian Gish, who nearly turns the film into a fairy tale by herself. She brings the echo of the silents, of Griffith, and of a certain timelessness that invites the viewer to accept the tale the same way he would accept her bible reading at the start. It is, for adults, a tale of the vicious repression of sexuality to God and to Mammon, something Gish rises above. I still recall vividly Gish coming on stage at the Dominion Theatre after a screening of The Wind, and that same ageless presence was still there.Stanley

The work of Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer, is magnficient. Cortez, born Stanlislaus Krantz, was the brother of the heartthrob Ricardo Cortez, one of the best of the homegrown Valentinos. Stanley didn't shoot many 'big' films, but made them count when he did (Magnificent Ambersons being the best-remembered). He has a catalogue of odd B movies to his credit, but he achieved something memorable here. And the set designer, Hilyard Brown, did Creature From The Black Lagoon, and what else is this film but that one with the monster being a human? 

And finally, may favourite of all the photos I found while I was writing this piece: Laughton, Winters and Gish out for dinner in Hollywood, 1955. Why are these people smiling? Or trying to smile?

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