Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Night of the Hunter: Flawed Masterpiece

I recently was able to see Night of the Hunter on the big screen. 

I had seen the movie before, maybe more than once.  Going in, I remembered only that I found the movie affecting and visually gorgeous. I was sure it would be amazing on the big screen. I could remember a scene in a bedroom where something in the lighting and angles made it look like a chapel and I could remember Robert Mitchum's quiet menace. 

Overall, it's a flawed piece. The plot is sketchy, full of odd holes and unclear motivations. The little girl looks eight and acts three. The narration is messy and the focus a little askew. There are a few moments that pulled me out of the story when my suspension of disbelief was stretched too thin and snapped. 

But there's still something so compelling in the film. The older brother's loyalty to his father, suspicion of Mitchum's Harry Powell, protectiveness of his little sister, slow movement to trusting Lillian Gish's Ms. Cooper. 

Mitchum's cold madness, his sureness in "the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us," his animal rage when thwarted.  Lillian Gish's portrayal of the grandmotherly patron of lost children, come to a hard-won peace with her own mistakes. 

Even poor, silly Ruby's willingness to give away her affections for a little attention and a movie magazine. As Ms. Cooper says, "Women are such durn fools." And we feel she knows--she's been that fool. She understands. 

It must be about the moments. The overall effect is not perfect, but there are moments of startling clarity and beauty.  Iconic moments.  Moments that only work in black and white. 

Willa Harper's body tied into the sunken car, her hair flowing like seaweed and the light making her translucent and glowing, a water spirit. 

Ms. Cooper's straight backed, long-strided, no nonsense walk with the line of children in tow behind her, like so many ducklings.  Sitting in her rocking chair with her rifle across her knees. Strength in a frail wrapping. 

The silhouette of Harry Powell on the horizon, under the impossibly bright moon, his baritone hymns echoing across the empty, desperate landscape. As lonely as Don Quijote, but implacable and adamant.

All the close ups on the animals who share the night journey downriver. You feel the fears in the night with your child's heart, thumping as fast as any frightened rabbit's. 

And certain lines.  

Harry Powell lifting his head at the ice cream counter and saying, "She'll not be back. I reckon I'm safe in promisin' you that," his hooded eyes failing to disguise the threat in his voice. 

All of Ms. Cooper's pronouncements about the way of the world. "It's a hard world for little things." Only Lillian Gish could pull off speaking them to the camera without sounding pedantic or strained. 

In the end, I think it comes down to Robert Mitchum, the mixture of madness, coldness and menace he brought to the role.  Who else could make "Bringing In the Sheaves" into a battle hymn? And what can  it mean that when Gish joins him in song, it's beautiful? They sing together as he stands outside waiting for his moment to attack and she guards the children, as much the embodiments of love and hate as Powell's finger tattoos. 

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