Decades Blogathon – The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

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We’re onto day four of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the inimitable Tom from Digital Shortbread. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Jordan over at the smart and sassy Epileptic Moondancer. Jordan’s site has a great mix of film (both old and new) and soundtrack reviews alongside plenty of other stuff to whet your whistle.

The Night Of The Hunter Poster

Not long ago I read an article in UK film mag Sight & Sound titled Southern Gothic. I am a big fan of old, gothic stories (Edgar Allen Poe is perhaps my favourite writer) and the article cited numerous examples of gothic tales originating from the south.

A quote from Tennessee Williams in the introduction to the article had me hooked, describing these films as being influenced by “an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience”. Hooked, I read on, and read about The Night Of The Hunter. Seeing the screenshot of a man with ‘H-A-T-E’ and ‘L-O-V-E’ tattooed on his fingers was the clincher.

The Night Of The Hunter is an eerie and highly symbolic film; a deceptively simple tale of good versus evil. The ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, representing evil is our villain Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He is a con man who plays a preacher to misguide suspicion; however, he also seems to sincerely believe he is a man of God.

Near the beginning of the film, we see his casual attitude to what he has already committed as he speaks to God: “How many has it been? Six?… Twelve? I disremember.” Reverend Harry Powell is the ultimate embodiment of a religious fanatic; taking the bible literally, deciding that if God killed so many people, why can’t he?

After the film’s surreal opening, which is best seen rather than read about, we are misled as we hear the sounds of children playing, but as the camera brings us down we see the children discovering the preacher’s last victim. Not caught for that crime, he is soon caught driving a stolen car and ends up in court.

The Night Of The Hunter

We then see the fate of another man, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who after stealing $10,000 dollars gives his secret to his son and doesn’t break when questioned. Sentenced to death, his short time spent in jail is in the same cell as our preacher. We don’t see exactly where Harper decided to stash the money, adding an element of tension to the story as Reverend Harry Powell has decided that God has put him in this cell. Upon release, Powell decides to head to the town where Harper’s widow and two children reside; the children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) representing the good in the story.

What follows is a chilling tale as this con man quickly makes the widow (Shelley Winters) his wife, and doesn’t waste his time in asking about the money. Filled with symbolic imagery that I am sure means something to a religious scholar, the children manage to escape the menacing preacher by sailing up-river – a truly unforgettable sequence as the children become one with nature.

One shot in particular that stuck in my mind was the image of a cobweb placed over the scene of the children sailing downstream, the sort of inventive camerawork that is almost extinct today. The preacher, however, is relentless in following them, often making his presence known by singing a hymn that sounds like a lullaby, but his intentions change the nature of the song entirely.

The Night Of The Hunter

After watching this I still cannot get those creepy lullabies out of my head. The climax of the movie is fantastic and is filled with suspense, while the ending is unlike too many films of today’s cinema; the meaning of it all is left to the viewer to decide.

Watching this reminded me of how I originally got into cinema – by working from the start through Kubrick’s filmography, followed by Polanski. I will always prefer their older films and they somehow feel more natural to me than recent film do. I was born four decades too late it seems, as older music and film always evokes more emotion from me.

So I feel I must thank to Tom and Mark of Digital Shortbread and Three Rows Back respectively, as watching and writing about this film has truly reminded me that this is the era of film that I love.

Black and white cinema has always fascinated me, and the way shadows are used here looks incredible. I must find more cinema like this. Southern Gothic or not, this is the era of movies that I will always love the most.

Four Frames – The Natural (1984)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Barry Levinson’s hagiographic baseball epic The Natural.

Of all the films made about the sport of baseball, plenty have struck out, while only a handful have truly knocked it out of the park. None, however, can compare to The Natural.

It’s unsurprising that a sport so revered by its innumerous followers should provide the backdrop to a picture whose central character is seemingly touched by the divine.

The Natural

Determined to become “the best there ever was” in baseball, the rise to greatness of gifted 19-year-old farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, aged 47 at the time of release) is brutally cut short by a maniacal femme fatale dressed head-to-toe in black (Barbara Hershey), who lures him to her hotel room before shooting him.

Sixteen years later, Roy joins the dead-end New York Knights as a “middle-aged rookie” and becomes an overnight sensation when he literally knocks the cover off the ball, a feat lent extra drama when a thunderstorm breaks out as the ball is struck.

The Natural

His belated ascent to baseball deity is threatened when he again allows himself to succumb to the wrong woman, this time in the form of the duplicitous and manipulative Memo (Kim Basinger). However, redemption presents itself when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) re-enters his life.

Director Barry Levinson’s sophomore picture incurred the wrath of many by jettisoning the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud’s source novel in favour of a wholly triumphant final reel.

The Natural

It’s the crucial play-off game and a debilitated Roy steps up to the plate knowing the Knights’ whole season rests on his shoulders. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; he sends one final, glorious home run crashing into the stadium lights, exploding them in a shower of sparks that light up his lap of honour in front of an enraptured crowd – all played out in slow-motion as if time itself is in awe.

Shameless and implausible it may be, but for a genre that so repeatedly wallows in melodrama, it remains an iconic moment in sports cinema. All the ingredients are there; from Randy Newman’s superheroic score, to Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography, which imbues each frame with a warm and nostalgic beauty.

The Natural

The film takes Arthurian legend (Roy’s Excalibur-esque bat Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree split in two by lightning) and Homer’s The Odyssey and fashions its own mythos out of the mix. It also lathers on the religious sub-text, most strikingly during a key moment when Iris, dressed all in white and stood in the stands watching Roy play, is bathed in an angelic glow courtesy of Deschanel’s astonishing use of lighting.

As hagiographic as it is towards Hobbs – and, in turn, Redford – The Natural perfectly captures the joy of witnessing the sort of greatness that comes along only once-in-a-lifetime.