40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Friday, September 16, 2005

New Posts Coming Soon

Sorry for the lack of recent updates, folks. I've had some health issues to deal with over the last few weeks. I was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so I've been spending time trying to come to terms with this disease and everything associated with it.

With that said, I'd like to start posting a series of movie reviews I've written. I'd say they're more analysis than review, so they will be in the form of an essay, rather than a standard movie review.

Next week should be fun with the start of the new fall TV season, so there will be plenty of new shows to write about.

I'll kick things off with my review of The Night of The Hunter, Charles Laughton's classic 1955 thriller starring Robert Mitchum. This one is definitely worth checking out. It was way ahead of its time in terms of narrative and a unique style of filmmaking.

The Night of The Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton

Famed British actor Charles Laughton (Mutiny on The Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) made his directorial debut with 1955’s Night of the Hunter. Film audiences of 1955 undoubtedly found Laughton’s expressionist vision impossible to decipher, and the film was a commercial and critical failure. Laughton, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, was so distraught over the reaction to his film that he vowed never to direct again. Clearly, Night of the Hunter was ahead of its time, and it took a few decades before moviegoers could appreciate all that Laughton accomplished with his film.

The concept of expressionism has to do with taking reality and reshaping it into a vision that becomes something not quite natural. The world as we know it is represented, but the effect of expressionism has our perception of that world tweaked in subtle, and no so subtle, ways.
Laughton opens the film with a darkened sky filled with stars. Suddenly the frame is filled with a woman (actress Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper) as she reads a bible story. Smiling children surrounds Rachel, as if they all were angels observing the world from above. And in the first few minutes of the film, we learn what expressionism is in that scene.
Another expressionist vision Laughton crafts introduces us to the character of Harry “Preacher” Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell is driving, and the frame is filled of him and his vehicle (stolen) as he glances up to heaven and “prays” to his god, complaining about his mission in life, which is to kill wealthy widows and steal their money.
As Powell drives, Laughton shifts the point of view to the back seat of the car, so we are observing the back of Powell’s head; this terrific shot creates the feeling that we are driving in the car with Powell.

The effects of expressionism on the viewer are numerous. At times we feel like silent observers from above. In several scenes Laughton provides a god’s eye view of the world below, and in brilliant tracking shots, we soar through the air to the village below. Other times we seem to be looking through the eyes of young John Harper (Billy Chapin), a little boy with baby sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) in tow. Powell will figure largely in their life soon, when he marries their widowed mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa is a widow because her husband Ben had been convicted of killing two people in a bank robbery and sentenced to death – but before he goes to prison, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) instructs John to hide the money that had been stolen from the bank. When Harper and Powell end up cellmates at prison, Powell learns of the $10,000 Harper had stolen from the bank, which will provide Powell with another widow to kill.
Preacher and some of the other adult character are, at times, painted in broad strokes with particular personalities. Harry “Preacher” Powell is probably crazy and certainly sexually repressed. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and sometimes a switchblade knife is not a switchblade knife. In one disturbing scene, Preacher is watching a burlesque show, silently seething at the “sin” on display; he has hidden his switchblade in his coat pocket and violently ejects the blade through the coat pocket, in a frankly explicit display of sexual repression. Preacher is, as they say, out to lunch.

Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) is one of the town’s gossips and Willa Harper’s employer, who tells Willa that a single mother cannot raise children on her own: “No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two.” The two being Willa and Preacher, an arrangement Icey immediately approves of.

Uncle Birdie (James Gleason) is an adult friend of John’s, his confidant. Birdie has great affection for the boy. Birdie also has a bit of a drinking problem. In the end he fails John and Pearl; the two are on the run from Preacher, and they head over to Uncle Birdie’s for help, but find the man dead drunk.

Willa Harper, mother to John and Pearl, seems to be in a sort of daze. The execution of her husband Ben did not appear to affect her at all. Like many others in town, Willa finds herself drawn inexplicably to Preacher, and the two marry. On their wedding night Willa approaches Preacher to consummate their marriage, only to be rebuked by Preacher, who probably would not have been up to the task, anyway. Preacher just wants Ben Harper’s money.

Rachel Cooper is the opposite of Preacher. While Preacher falsely claims to be a man of God, Rachel Cooper is a devoted, deeply religious woman who takes in orphans and, as we see in the end, is fiercely protective of her flock. When Preacher comes to Cooper’s home, looking for John and Pearl and lying about why he was looking for them, Rachel immediately sees Preacher for what he is and is ready to shoot him dead with her rifle should he try to do anything to her flock of children.

Night of the Hunter’s vision of childhood is rather bleak. There isn’t much happiness for John and Pearl in the film. Laughton illustrates this bleakness in a scene where John and Pearl are observing children in a playground as they sing a song to mock John and Pearl (“Hing, Hang, Hung, See What the Hangman Done”) and even draw a picture of Ben Harper in a hangman’s noose. Pearl, who is a little too young to understand what is happening, starts to sing the song. John, a little wise beyond his years, tells her to stop.
Night of the Hunter is an ambitious and original film. It’s a shame it wasn’t appreciated when it came out. Charles Laughton obviously had a unique imagination, and it would have been interesting to see what that vision would have brought to the world of cinema.

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