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AUGUST 23, 1999: 

Night of the Hunter

D: Charles Laughton (1955)
with Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Billy Chapin, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce.

Charles Laughton enjoyed a lengthy and illustrious acting career on stage and screen, but only served as director for one film. Night of the Hunter did so poorly at the box office and was so poorly received by critics that he was never allowed to helm another film again; Laughton was devastated by his movie's fate. The film that he directed, though, is a remarkable, strange, moody, atmospheric work. It sometimes plays as a fable, sometimes as a violent thriller, sometimes as a near-farce. In her autobiography, Shelley Winters said that she often felt very disturbed and unsettled during the making of Night of the Hunter, and for good reason.

In the 1930s, Ben Harper (Graves) kills a man in the course of robbing a bank. Injured and pursued by the cops, he goes home and entrusts his young son John (Chapin) with the money, making him promise to never reveal its location (stuffed inside his younger sister Pearl's doll). In prison, cellmate Rev. Harry Powell (Mitchum) overhears Harper mumbling in his sleep and deduces where the money might be. Harper dies. Powell is released and soon finds his way to Harper's widow, whom he marries. The kids, however, don't have a good feeling about their stepdad. Subsequent events bear out their foreboding and the two end up on the run, with the phony preacher in pursuit.

As the evil preacher Powell, Mitchum brings a palpable sense of menace to his role; his lazy rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" fills the kids with dread, but the adults never believe them until it's too late. He drives wedges between the kids, cons every adult into believing his story, and passes himself off as a man of God, all the while lusting after the small fortune inside Pearl's dolly. Indeed, Mitchum's character seems almost supernatural (John overhears Powell languidly singing hymns late at night and says incredulously, "Doesn't he ever sleep?"). Night of the Hunter would make a great double feature with the l962 version of Cape Fear for a Robert Mitchum Twin-Pak of Evil. With the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles (fans of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, take notice), his black hat and Colonel Sanders tie, a switchblade, and a quote of the scriptures always at the ready, Rev. Harry Powell is one of Mitchum's more memorable roles. The scene where the children make their escape from Powell in a john boat is a strange, dreamlike one; I refrain from using the word "magical" when discussing any film, but it seems to fit here.

Night of the Hunter's visual sensibilities are as striking as the performances and script (written by legendary film critic and author of the seminal work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographer Walker Evans, James Agee, and adapted from the novel by Davis Grubb). Cinematographer Stanley Cortez showed impeccable shot compositions and angles, often putting the shots together inside arch shapes or triangular cathedral shapes. The film actually has a very formal feel that invites analysis and deconstruction by film-school types. A few years later, Cortez would serve as lensman for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

So what happened with this outstanding movie? Audiences in 1955 were not ready for an oddball mix of arthouse style and allegorical moral fable. It was undoubtedly considered too corny for audience palates geared toward cynical noir dramas, escapist musical fare, and light comedy. With a storyline that harks back to the days of DW Griffith and Little Nell, Night of the Hunter was bound to fail. It's a film that seems so out of place for the time it was made, it's amazing that it came about at all. It wasn't until years and years later that this movie has come to receive the appreciation that it's due. -- Jerry Renshaw



Rushmore

D: Wes Anderson (1998)
with Bill Murray, Jonathan Schwartzman, Olivia Williams.

It's a shame that outside of critics and art house afficionados, Rushmore came and went from theatres with little more than a nod. Considering its lack of star appeal (save, of course, Bill Murray) and a highbrow approach to teen angst, much of the popcorn-buying public were probably out seeing The Waterboy instead.

The film revolves around Max Fischer (Schwartzman, in an outstanding debut), a student at Rushmore prep school. Once a promising scholar, his grades are suffering badly. That's because he spends more time founding clubs and writing plays (including a stage adaptation of Serpico). Although he's threatened with expulsion, his creative spirit reigns over responsibility. After meeting one of the school's prime benefactors, multimillionaire Mr. Blume (Murray), the two become fast friends. That is, until Max develops a spirited crush on Rushmore teacher Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams) and Blume has an affair with her. From here on, the two engage in a bitter war, but don't think that this is the entire plot.

Each character is on the rebound from various personal losses. For Max, it's his deceased mother. Blume's maniacal family has sucked the very life out of him, and Ms. Cross is still grieving over her late husband. In each other, they see reflections of the people who once inspired happiness and success.

This triangle may sound complex, but director Anderson underscores it with hilarious supporting characters (a Scottish bully with half an ear) and a killer Sixties soundtrack (Cat Stevens, The Who). He also applies subtle color schemes to enhance the film's charming and sometimes cartoonish visual appeal.

The real credit, however, should go to Schwartzman. As Max, he's created one of last year's truly original characters. With his Clark Kent glasses, braces, a French beret, and trusty Rushmore blazer (which he wears long after he is finally expelled from the school), he's an egocentric nerd whose passions outweigh his sensibilities. In one scene, he simultaneously displays cultural maturity and youthful recklessness by feigning a bloody injury to win Ms. Cross, then trying to set a romantic mood by popping a Yves Montand tape in her stereo.

Overall, Rushmore is an engaging film that's funny and extremely clever. One of its main strengths is its dissection of the age barriers that so often separate adults and teens. Just as Max tries to cut through the years that separate he and Ms. Cross, Anderson does just that with his audience. The result is a movie that will appeal to an assortment of generations without leaning on pop trends or egghead humor. -- Mike Emery


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