Monday, January 19, 2009

The Great Movies: "Night of the Hunter"


Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton, 1955.

A modern thriller is often judged on its twists and turns, on how much the filmmakers can surprise us with plot reversals and shocking revelations that make us rethink everything that has gone before. So an earlier thriller like Night of the Hunter can feel pretty plodding these days just for being straightforward. This is a movie about a creepy preacher who preys on rich widows, and no time is wasted in establishing the premise. In a modern version, we wouldn't begin to suspect anything was amiss with the humble man of God until the 45-minute mark. In Night of the Hunter, the preacher shows his cards in his opening soliloquy.

The strength of this film is its imagery. The black and white photography is terrific, and the sets are slightly surreal, placing the characters in spaces that are at once familiar and grotesque. It is becoming obvious, halfway through this project, that Roger Ebert really loves him a motion picture image; so many of these Great Movies have great visuals but fairly serious flaws elsewhere.

In Night of the Hunter, all of that great photography is undercut by characters whose actions, depending on how charitable you are feeling, are either "highly mannered" or represent that their collective IQ approaches that of a turnip. The Spooky Preacher's work is just all too easy in this little village; the potentially rich widow is all but forced on him within five minutes of his arrival in town, before he's done telling his blatantly dodgy back story. A quick phone call would clear things up, but it doesn't occur to anyone that anything needs clearing up. Mysterious preacher passing through.... new widow.... why wouldn't there be a wedding?

These things I'm identifying as problems can be defended, as with my review of Metropolis last week, as intentional aspects of an Expressionist approach to filmmaking. My personal (and admittedly unorthodox (and arguably kind of crabby)) response to that would be that just because it's intentional, and just because it has a basis in theory, doesn't mean it ain't a flaw.


The Plot: Only the children know where the $10,000 is hid. The Spooky Preacher marries mom, interrogates the kids relentlessly, and eventually pursues them on a slow-speed chase down the Ohio River, the townspeople placidly failing to register anything unusual or disturbing throughout.

Visuals: Great!

Dialogue: Pretty thin. Most noted for the Spooky Preacher acting out the battle between L-O-V-E, tattooed on his right hand, and H-A-T-E, tattooed on his left hand. This little parable turns out to be a microcosm of the whole movie's narrative arc, which is kind of cool I guess.

Prognosis: It wouldn't be the worst movie you've ever seen, but you could probably find better ways to spend 90 minutes, too.


NEXT WEEK: John Ford's My Darling Clementine

13 comments:

KarmaSartre said...

It's what's for dinner...

Cartophiliac said...

I'm so glad you watch these movies... so we don't have to.

Michael5000 said...

@Carto: well, only if you trust MY judgement. Mr. Ebert might suggest I was methodically steering you away from wonderfully enriching cinematic masterpieces. Caveat Lector.

Chance said...

As a long-time aficionado of classic B&W film, especially noir, I've seen it twice and never liked it, despite many other classic film buffs' gushing over its greatness. I'm with you on the absurd plot, the slow-speed chase, the stupidity of the characters. Also, very, very bad acting by nearly everyone. I just can't care about films that the writer and director clearly didn't expect me to take seriously.

sister jen said...

BUT--the whole Love/Hate tattoo thing has become a cultural reference, and knowing the original source (and its context) can be enlightening in other encounters (e.g., Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Bruce Springsteen's "Cautious Man," etc.), or just make you feel smartical, as my daughter and her friends would say. (Or is that "smarticle"?)

Michael5000 said...

@Sis: Yeah, I was surprised to see the Love/Hate tattoo thing outside of the Do the Right Thing context. Or I would have been, if the tattoos weren't visible on the DVD cover.

That's happened a lot with this project, most notably when I watched "Le Samourai" and was all, like, "Hey! This is just "Ghost Dog"! Except 35 years earlier, and drabber!

sister jen said...

And I'm sure was part of your tempered appreciation of Metropolis. Stilted and irrelevantly mannered as it may seem to us now, there's the genesis of Gotham City, of King Kong swatting airplanes, of the L.A. of "Bladerunner," of Gilliam's "Brazil," of our cinematic vision of the "mad scientist," of at least half a dozen Bugs Bunny cartoons, yadda yadda...

But oops, I've wandered off to last week's film...

Can't wait to see what you think of "Clementine" ("noir Western," it's usually called); I teach that one in about three weeks...

Michael5000 said...

Check it out, people -- BigSister5000 would take three weeks with "My Darling Clementine" and probably want you to pay tuition or something! Whereas, with me, you'll get five or six quick paragraphs, absolutely FREE! Truly, I am the Economy5000.

mrs.5000 said...

um, I suspect that "in three weeks" didn't refer to duration of the lesson...

Michael5000 said...

Oh. Right.

Well, I'm STILL cheaper!

sister jen said...

But I COULD take three weeks--easy-- on the composition alone. Also it's fun to be able to say "of course, this is an excellent example of day-for-night shooting."

Chance said...

Well, I'm STILL cheaper!

Stay loud and proud, M5K.

MJ said...

bravo! this must be the first review of Night of the Hunter that does not contain the word "poetic".