Saturday, February 15, 2014

An American Fairytale

Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed. [G. K. Chesterton]*
This is a continuation of my previous post.

I've always loved myths and fairy tales. I have most of the colors of Andrew Lang's fairy tale collection, and have read most of the stories in them. I grew up reading Lang and Edith Hamilton and Padraic Colum and Bulfinch. Among fairy tales, my favorite were and remain Grimms', in all their unbowdlerized savagery: Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Juniper Tree, Bearskin, Rapunzel, The Goose Girl. It's hard to find much in modern literature to compare with them for strange, sudden beauty and violent resolution. Flannery O'Connor comes close.

At any rate, this probably explains why I find The Night of the Hunter (1955) such a beautiful movie. Though set in the countryside of the Great Depression, it's as close as a fairy tale has ever come to being turned into film. It's closest to Hansel and Gretel, perhaps, but bears relation to a great many others, and (to my mind, at least) well effects what Tolkien calls Recovery. Amazingly, it is the only film Charles Laughton ever made.

The Wikipedia entry describes it as a film noir, but that it most certainly is not. It may share common roots in German expressionism, I suppose. It opens with the kindly old rescuer, Rachel who has a lot in common with George MacDonald's recurring wise-woman character, talking about the Sermon on the Mount to a ring of disembodied children, all superimposed against a field of pulsating stars that make me think of the Babel myth image in Metropolis. She's warning them to beware of false prophets.

The False Prophet being, of course, the Preacher, Harry Powell, the fellow with HATE and LOVE tattooed on his knuckles.** A serial killer of widows, a thief, and an itinerant preacher who, far from being a mere hypocrite, prays to God whenever he's alone, and believes God to be on his side.
Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. [Tips hat.] You say the word, Lord, I'm on my way. You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killin's. Your Book is full of killin's. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.
A worthy descendant of Bluebeard.

The Ohio River flows as a living thing through the story, like the Deluge of Noah and the Nile that bore the baby Moses. There is a scene – how did Laughton even film this? – of the preacher's murdered wife sitting in her car at the bottom of the river, her long pale hair waving with the trailing plants that grow there.
Ah, if you could have seen it, Bess, down there in the deep place, with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water, and that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth.
The scene of the children's escape from the monster, drifting with the current in their little skiff, as Pearl sings her curious song –
Once upon a time there was a pretty fly,
he had a wife this pretty fly
but one day she flew away, flew away.
She had two pretty children,
but one night those pretty children
flew away into the sky, into the moon.
– and the night creatures – the bullfrogs, the rabbits, the spiders – watch them, must be the most beautiful in American film.

And the film is very American, and strongly reminiscent of American art. The landscapes could have been painted by Grant Wood (American Gothic) or Thomas Hart Benton (Persephone). Some of the shots remind one particularly of Benton's lithographs. The boat scene has a spiritual connection with Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom and the like. There's an image of the old woman, Rachel, rocking in a chair while holding a shotgun that must surely be a reference to Whistler's Mother. Laughton also emphasizes the link to American or Southern gothic through use of points and spires, the most memorable instance being the killing scene, when the violently steep cathedral ceiling echoes Powell's open stick-knife.

As in Flannery O'Connor, the Bible is woven unapologetically  into the texture of the landscape. And there are no cheap, ham-fisted denunciations of religious hypocrisy here. Even the villain is complex, in his way. Because, as I said, he believes. He believes and he is a rank puritan, horrified and disgusted by sex. That is what defines him. In a revealing opening scene, he sits in the dark in a cabaret, watching a girl dance on the stage, meditating on killing her but reflecting that there are too many such in the world. He puts his hand in his coat pocket, and the blade of his stick-knife tears through the cloth; apparently, the original screenplay had it tearing through his pants pocket instead.

It's probably Robert Mitchum's most memorable role. He's delightfully creepy – Children! Childre-e-e-en? – and cruel, but also comically mawkish at times, capable of losing all dignity in an instant, driven by his sordid desires. The scene where Rachel shoots him after the cat attacks him and he runs, howling like a wounded animal, into the barn, is both terrifying and hilarious. And Lillian Gish is wonderful as Rachel. Her goodness and strength is a perfect contrast to Powell's perfidy.
I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for somethin' in this old world, and I know it, too.
I'm not sure I've been particularly coherent here, but that's where I'll stop. If you haven's seen this film, and you treasure the silence, beauty, and arresting strangeness that would-be fantasy-filmmakers seem incapable of producing in their films, then please watch The Night of the Hunter. I'll close with Rachel's words, spoken after she watched a barn owl pounce on a rabbit, bringing us full circle to the Chesterton quote up top:
It's a hard world for little things.

* Not actually Chesterton, though he said something similar.
** I find it difficult not to think of Sideshow Bob throughout the movie.

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