Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blind Spot: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

[This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.]

When Best Film of All-Time lists are compiled (which is actually pretty often. People seem to love a good list) there's always the usual suspects that seem to get the top spot. Usually it's some combination of Casablanca, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, or sure-thing and (almost) undisputed champ, Citizen Kane. And you'll get no complaints from me regarding any of those films topping any best of list (although, let's be honest - The Godfather Part II is better than the first). But it's always interesting when an unexpected (but no less deserving film) gets that number one spot.

A couple of years ago when Sight and Sound released it's once-a-decade list (their list is pretty much considered the gold standard when it comes to lists of this sort), there was a little bit of a shock when it was revealed that Vertigo had overtaken Citizen Kane for the coveted top ranking. And in my research for this month's Blind Spot (courtesy of Roger Ebert), I was more surprised to find that a list from London's Spectator chose not Kane, Vertigo, or The Godfather for the top honor but the odd-ball choice of The Night of the Hunter. The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, it was actually a critical and commercial disappoint at the time of its release. Amazingly not even nominated for a single Oscar nomination the year of its release, its esteem has only risen over the years. After hearing about it for years, I finally caught up with this twisted little film this past weekend for my entry in this month's Blind Spot.

The Night of the Hunter seems to actually defy easy classification. It's all things at once: a thriller, a modern day fable, an American folklore, an allegory of faith. It's at once chilling, hanuting, comedic, and visually stunning in its surrealist black and white cinematography (courtesy of Stanley Cortez who once joked that he was always assigned the weird projects). The film also seems to transcend any particular time. True, it may be set in the rural American South (and what I'm told is the 1930's but looks older than that), but its stylized look, unlike any other Hollywood films that were being made at that time, and its obvious influence from German expressionism and silent films of the 20's and 30's (particular the work of Fritz Lang) have only allowed it to improve with age, maintaining a timelessness that has allowed it to gained the reputation it has today.

The film stars Robert Mitchum as on of the creepiest characters to ever grace the screen, Reverend Harry Powell. A corrupt preacher (although, he never can give a straight answer as to what religion he's actually associated with) that has conversations with god and preys on unsuspecting widows, robbing them of their money and their lives. Powell is clearly a misogynist with a strong distaste for anything involving femininity and sexuality. In one of the first scenes we see of Powell, he sits at a burlesque show, getting so worked up with disgust that he cuts through his pocket with his ever-ready switchblade. Which doesn't bode well for the latest wife to cross his path, Shelley Winters.

Winters is Willa Harper, a mother of two and a recent widow after her husband, Ben Harper, (no, not Laura Dern's ex-husband, Ben Harper. Although, I can see some Shelley Winters in Dern... ) is hanged after stealing $10,000 and killing two men during the robbery. Powell, after sharing a cell with Harper, sees the encounter as a sign from god and marries Willa to recover the fortune. Things don't go quite as Willa had envisioned (won't the hot, creepy guy make a fantastic stepfather?!?), especially during the night of their wedding in which she receives a brutal, verbal dressing-down from Powell that's as uncomfortable for the viewer as it is for the attacked Willa. (But, I mean, she had to have suspected things weren't gonna work out well when she finds his beloved switchblade in the pocket of his coat before she tries to hop into bed with him. Her reaction at its discovery - with a shrug and the bless-his-heart delivery of "Men..." - is comedic genius and sets us off-balance for the tense scene that follows.)

Despite the constant presence of the menacing switchblade, the most memorable aspect of Powell (and perhaps what people who are not familiar with the film would know about) seems to be the tattoos he sports on his knuckles: one with HATE the other with LOVE. And during one of his first encounter's with Willa's young son John (Billy Chapin), we get a lesson about the dueling emotions:
Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t'other. Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!
After such a lovely story, is it a surprise that John doesn't trust the shady preacher? And once Powell murders Willa (in one of the film's most arresting images we see a watery vision of her in her car at the bottom of the river, her hair mingling with the seaweed as she transforms into some sort of water nymph in her liquid tomb), John and his little sister Pearl (her doll is the stolen money's hiding spot) escape the clutches of the murderous Powell and take off down the river in a nightmarish, biblical journey. The montage is filled with images of fantastical spiderwebs and frogs, emphasizing the dark fairy tale quality that the film emulates.

The children are taken in by a kindly woman named Rachel Cooper (played by silent film star, Lillian Gish) who protects them from the omnipresent Powell. And the two face off in a battle of good and evil, mirroring the dichotomy of love and hate that Powell is so found of. Gish's Rachel, an angel with a shotgun, is not afraid of the demonic Powell. And even if good doesn't entirely win out in the end, it puts up a good fight against the evil's of Mitchum's Reverend. And an open-ended conclusion leaves us with an uneasy feeling of history repeating.

Laughton, who was so disillusioned with the process of making the film (rumor has it that he so disliked the child actors that he had Mitchum handle them during their scenes) and so disappointed with the reception the film received that he never directed another. Perhaps if he had known how much its prestige and respect would grow over the years and realized that he had made such a revolutionary film ahead of its time, that he would have left us with more masterpieces to match The Night of the Hunter. But I guess we should be content with the singular film he did leave is, which seems to only improve with admiration over time. Who knows what other best of lists it may find itself on (is Sight and Sound out of the question?), but one thing is certain, the letter's on Powell's hand that spell LOVE seem to best describe most present-day opinions of this extraordinary film.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The (Golden) Eye of the Beholder

"Bond. James Bond."
We all know his name. And even if you haven't seen one of the dozens of films over the past 52 years to star the martini-loving (shaken - not stirred. Although, who the hell mixes a martini by stirring it. What are we, savages?), womanizing (I hope he uses protection and is tested regularly), British spy, his reputation proceeds him. Although, seriously, is there actually anyone who hasn't seen at least one Bond film? If you haven't - What is wrong with you?! If there's one film that is mentioned countlessly as the most James Bond-iest of all the James Bond films, it has to be 1964's Goldfinger. The film is not only celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but is this week's subject for the mid-season finale of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience. The film really established the Bond formula and set the ground work for the subsequent adventures:

1. Opening Title Sequence of naked ladies:

Sure, the silhouetted lady design had been used previously the year before in From Russia With Love, but with Goldfinger, the aesthetic was perfected. What only the year before had been cheeky and fun, was now fully sexual and seductive. And with actual images projected on the woman's bodies instead of just text, the visuals pop even more setting a precedence for the future films. Bonus points for Shirley Bassey's sultry growl of a title song, "Goooolld-FIIIINNNNGGGAAAAAH!"

2. Crazy Villains and their Crazier Accessories 

The main villain of the film, Auric Goldfinger, a portly man obsessed with gold, checks off all the super villain boxes. A wardrobe that seems to consist entirely of clothes to represent his favorite thing. A hidden lair complete with penis-zapping, impossibly slow-moving lasers. A weird ability to defy logic and science by killing people with body paint. And, most importantly, an insane mute sidekick named Oddjob whose imposing stature is matched only by his deadly choice of headgear.

3. The Greatest Named Bond Girl. Ever.

Here she is, ladies and gentleman, Miss...Pussy Galore. If you can say that name without snickering, congratulations, you are way more mature than I. In a series where doctors are named Christmas Jones and tarot card readers are named Solitaire, you know that a well-named Bond girl is an essential element to the films. And although many girls have entered the running for the title of most outlandishly dirty moniker (nice try, Honey Ryder and Holly Goodhead), the honor (Blackman) is snatched up by Pussy Galore.

4. The gadgets

The two previous Bond films never used the gadgets in quite the same way that Goldfinger does and ever since they have easily become a Bond essential. The Aston Martin soon became synonymous with the spy, but I'm sure people wanted to be able to purchase the version in the film. Equipped with a license plate that changes, an ejector seat, wheel-shredding spikes, and handy oil dispenser (just to name a few features) the sports car is just what every globe-trotting, international man of mystery needs.

5. Girls, Girls, Girls

Yes, to know Bond is to know his prowess with the ladies. And the Bond Girls are all apart of the sexy fantasy of the Bond world. But in Goldfinger there's Jill Masterson , the ill-fated beauty responsible for the film's most iconic image, her sister, the gun-toting, revenge-seeking, unfortunately named Tilly, and an unnamed conquest at the beginning of the film that happens to be the subject of my Best Shot:

At some point, I'm sure all of the woman Bond has bedded have just become a faceless number, which is why I wanted to focus on this poorly-treated conquest. Just as she is about to get down and dirty with Bond, an assassin appears to take him down. But Bond notices the lumbering man's presence in the reflection of her eye. It serves as a metaphor of how Bond is constantly looking past woman, not truly getting to know them as humans, and focusing on what they reflect back to him. This time it's his love of danger that interest him more and the poor girl literally gets tossed aside as he uses her as a human shield to deflect the blows. That Bond is a cad. But the ladies still seem to love him.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Twice a Best Actor Summer Roundtable

A couple months ago, I was asked by Fisti over at A Fistful of Films to participate in a Blogger Roundtable looking at the 9 actors that won double Best Actor Oscars. After watching the award-winning films, we critique and grade each performance to ultimately decide whose double wins are the most worthy. We're taking a look at a different actor each week and the posts go up on Fisti's blog on Fridays. We've already taken on Sean Penn last week (and the differences of opinion are all over the place. Can you believe that there are people that actually like Mystic River? To each their own...). And this week we look at the work of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York and High Noon.
Please check out the posts and share your thoughts in the comments. And be sure to check out the rest of the Actors every Friday this summer at A Fistful of Films!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Life Lessons Courtesy of 'Zorba the Greek'

Are you a listless British writer in need of some forced seize-the-day type lectures from a scruffy, older faux-Greek, vaguely Mexican man? Then come to the exotic isle of Crete! It's not just a great place to get away, there's so much to be learned from life while you're there. Let Zorba lead the way along this journey of discovery. Here are some basic truths from Zorba the Greek (1964). Opa!
  • Alan Bates is hot. Why didn't someone tell me this sooner? There's a scene where he's wearing glasses and being all moody that made me swoon.
  • If they ever make a Anthony Quinn biopic, no one else can play him except Javier Bardem. They have the same profile! 
  • Everyone on Crete is a bunch of assholes. They seem to always be together in huge groups just waiting to cause problems. I mean, they steal goats from people for no reason and generally make everyone feel miserable. There's a reason people from there are called Cretins.*
  • If you are a woman thinking of going to Crete, I would seriously reconsider it. You will either a) have stones thrown at you like some biblical Jezebel b) have all of your possessions stolen from your home even before your corpses is cold c) or, you know, you'll just be killed for something that is somehow your fault. Let the good times roll!
  • When your elaborately built, yet poorly constructed pulley system to transport logs falls apart, oh, well - just eat some beachside roasted lamb!
  • Dancing is the solution. To what, you ask? Everything. Put your arms up and shuffle around.
  • "Why do we have hands? To grab!" I'm pretty sure is the motto of every date rapist.
  • But most importantly (and the reason for this post) the Best Shot of the Film (for this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from The Film Experience):

Despite the bad behavior of its men (prostitutes! misogyny! violence!), it seems to all be watched over with a blind religious eye. The stoning and murder of a character takes place right outside the church while the town is at mass. Characters clasp at crosses like it will magically save them from the evils around them (or the one's they've committed). This shot of a group of monks (all the people on this island are always in packs) tentatively approaching a make-shift cross that Zorba has created (after they mistakenly take him for the devil incarnate) shows that despite the people of Crete's belief in the power of Religion, the institution is just as superstitious, tentative, and fearful as its followers. And after examining the contents of the jug, they discover that Zorba has replaced the water with wine (a miracle!). The monks then proceed to become drunk, indulging in the debauchery that Zorba so often philosophizes about. He's always teaching some sort of lesson.

* This is just an observation from the film and does not represent the actual people of Crete. I hope.