Thursday, 1 October 2015

Joel McCrea, The Night of the Hunter, and feminism - Reviews #216

I've been busy writing and with work, but here are a few things I've watched or read lately. I also saw (and met!) Dave Gilmour, which was amazing. I'm listening to Dark Side of the Moon as I write this.

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
is one of the great films, a beguiling, bewitching, sometimes bewildering collision of Gothic horror and fairytale, a haunting, hypnotic vision of pure evil, of goodness, of redemption, of innocence lost and perhaps regained, of greed and guilt, loss, delusion, sexual obsession and puritanical perversion. It has some weak acting, wild lurches in tone and even a little Schufftan silliness, and yet also many of the most striking, magical sequences of its era, climaxing with a half-hour confrontation between good and evil that is amongst the most indelibly artistic and impossibly moving passages of pure cinema ever put onto celluloid.

Robert Mitchum is a psychotic, phony preacher on the hunt for a $10,000 stash hidden away somewhere by a recently hanged bank robber (Peter Graves). Inveigling his way into the lives of Graves’s widow (Shelley Winters) and two children – John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Anne Bruce) – he seduces her, charms their friends at the local ice-cream parlour and a picnic in the park, and terrorises the young ‘uns, convinced that they know where the money’s hidden. Which they do. It’s in Pearl’s dolly.

Laughton, a famed stage and screen actor directing his first and only film, drew on the then-derided medium of silent film for his visual inspiration, basing his visuals primarily on the work of German Expressionist director F. W. Murnau: the early sections draw transparently on Nosferatu and Faust, the later ones on Sunrise and particularly City Girl. He’s helped, immeasurably, by Stanley Cortez, who had shot arguably the most ambitious and attractive film of the previous decade, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, before it was unfortunately slashed to shreds by a bunch of dicks. Almost literally.

Mitchum was one of the best actors of his generation, and a favourite of David Lean, but he got most of his power from underplaying, in movies like Out of the Past, The Lusty Men and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In a role of this kind, that approach simply wouldn’t work, and so he plays it big: at first brilliantly – the ‘story of left hand, right hand’ is a dazzling set-piece – but then increasingly as a sort of satanic panto villain, hamming it up outrageously, and even growling in a way best filed under ‘extremely silly’. Laughton and Cortez use him superbly, as does the story, but I don’t see his performance as one of his best; in fact, not even close.

There are also weaknesses in the children’s performances: Bruce’s line readings are mostly exactly the same as one another, while Chapin alternates between articulating resourcefulness and stoic belligerence and just acting quite poorly: as in that moment where he blurts out something ill-advised and then belatedly gasps and clutches a hand to his mouth. At other times he’s spot-on, but essentially playing the Bobby Driscoll part from The Window, you can see the gulf in class between the two.

And yet despite those shortcomings, it’s never less than utterly astonishing, creating a seductive, artistically enriching world so rich with symbolism, so blessed by love, craftsmanship and even - dare I say it - genius that you can’t help but be enraptured. There’s the stunning, eerie use of wholesome American song. The shot of Mitchum framed as if in a chapel, as he clutches skywards, channelling his God. Winters in the water: one of the most astounding, unforgettable images in all of American film. The entrancingly beautiful boat ride, entirely fresh, yet utterly timeless.

And then, just when you think it can’t get any better, silent screen icon Lillian Gish turns up, armed with the only truly worthy role of her sound career: an aged version of the heart-rending heroines she played in Griffith’s rural tone poems, Way Down East and True Heart Susie, with so much love to give and so much empathy for the meek, the weak and those children who “abide and they endure”. It is as good a performance as I have ever seen in a movie, for once conceived and shot with as much intelligence and reverence for an actor of Gish’s mercurial, majestic gifts as she deserved; and every time she opens her mouth, I want to cry. The only other performance that has ever had that effect on me is Wendy Hiller’s Major Barbara: both performances are true and both characters are gentle and selfless, but have a rod of sheerest steel at their centre.

I must have seen the film 30 times and there are still new things to enjoy, to marvel at, to be astounded by: like the little tell-tale paper figures blowing unseen past Mitchum’s feet. But it’s the old things I love the best, particularly that incomparable scene in which Mitchum once again commandeers that wondrous hymn, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, to creep the hell out of Chaplin and Bruce. But this time Gish, in silhouette and cradling a rifle as she sits in a rocking chair, joins in, her voice rising and harmonising, in perfect tandem over his haunting, horrifying vocals. He’s not on top any more – in the story or in the film – because Lillian Gish is here. (4)


Joel McCrea Westerns, because why the hell not?

Border River (George Sherman, 1954) - Everyone has comfort movies. Mine are mostly old rom-coms, and '50s B-Westerns starring Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott or particularly Joel McCrea - the only one of the three who could actually, like, act.

This McCrea oater is better and better-funded than most, with a nice balance of intrigue, action and romance, as his Confederate bank robber turns up in a Mexican town, attracting the attention of merciless mercenaries, a slick crime kingpin with his own private army, and the kingpin's girlfriend (Yvonne de Carlo), who likes money, but likes McCrea more.

There are some pleasant if sparing location shots, several unexpectedly fantastic lines - as well as a couple of sillier exchanges, including one about a pig - and plenty of plot twists, even if a few could be seen as mildly convenient. And though it wobbles a tad in the final third under the weight of a frankly ambitious number of subplots, the climactic set-piece delivers, with one fantastic stunt, and a fascinating piece of off-kilter imagery.

I doubt the film would work half as well without the effortless charisma, lovely voice and leathery tanned skin of McCrea, one of the most likeable and - within his limitations - underrated actors ever to grace the American screen, but with him in the saddle it's fine if admittedly flawed fun. (3)

Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A po-faced, pastel-shaded and action-packed Western about the cleaning up of Wichita, featuring a Wyatt Earp who's a little too good to be true. It's great fun, though, despite its artificiality, with plenty of incident, a fine cast led by Joel McCrea, and a theme song that works as a lovely motif, once shorn of its extremely silly words. There are also some cracking visual compositions, right from the get-go, and weightier observations than you might expect about gun control and law and order, the film rather more progressive on the former than the latter. (3)

Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A sensational little Western about the coming of law and order, with gun-toting circuit judge Joel McCrea trying to bring the son of a powerful pioneer to justice.

Made by McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur the same year as Wichita, it's a vastly superior outing in every way: a tight, slim oater that does wonders with a tiny budget, boasting a riveting story, a crackling script that includes a superb monologue for villain John McIntire and a stunning climax making full use of whip-cracking desert dominatrix Miroslava. There's also a colourful supporting part for long-faced John Ford favourite, John Carradine.

McCrea's Westerns are one of my enduring cinematic pleasures, but they're rarely as good as this intelligent offering, one of the few as impressive as his central characterisation: which here is assured, multi-faceted and effortlessly imposing. The only real downsides are a couple of duff effects and the fact that no colour negative for this film still exists, so the existing print looks a little odd and oversaturated.

In creating a chamber Western that's credible, invigorating and constantly keeps you guessing, Tourneur and his writers effectively anticipated the 'Ranown' cycle: the Budd Boetticher movies starring McCrea's contemporary and rival, Randolph Scott, which kicked off the following year with the astounding Seven Men from Now. The two stars were eventually united in Sam Peckinpah's second and greatest film, Ride the High Country. (3.5)


Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964) - A dark, atmospheric thriller about false-nosed asthmatic Dickie Attenborough being forced to kidnap a child by his wife, a terrifying, chameleonic psychic played by Kim Stanley.

It's extremely well-acted, with superb use of sound - augmented by John Barry's syncopated score - and one notably fine sequence making the most of London's Underground.

For all that, it's not exactly enjoyable, and while the shifting dynamics and periodic revelations keep you guessing, the forced withholding of information, Gothic-lite back story and excessive use of interiors prevent it from scaling the heights it otherwise might.

As ironic pay-offs go, though, that last line is very deftly done. (3)


Bitter Sweet (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1940) - Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald's seventh of eight films together is no match for their early classics - Naughty Marietta, Rose Marie and Maytime - with a poorly-paced story, unmemorable songs and an interminable gypsy opera finale.

It's set largely in Vienna, with exactly the supporting cast you'd expect (Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman and Herman Bing), as well as George Sanders proving comprehensively that amongst his considerable arsenal was not the ability to do accents.

The film starts quite well and thereafter occasionally sparks into life, courtesy of the Singing Sweethearts' singularly evocative harmonising or a funny scene with Bing that riffs cleverly on the absurdity of their image, but mostly it's distressingly mediocre, with barely any story at all - and then much too much. It's also somewhat garish and flatly directed by Woody 'One Take' Van Dyke, despite rather hilariously - in the wake of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind - being billed as "Technicolor's greatest spectacle".

Noel Coward was reportedly so outraged by the changes made to his play that he never let Hollywopd touch another one; the result is a reheated reimagining of Maytime with little of the sweetness and none of the peril or intense romantic feeling.

Eddy and MacDonald's movies are often (and unfairly) dismissed nowadays as kitsch or camp, but at their best they do as good a job as any of crystallising the extraordinary escapism that MGM was capable of crafting: the Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life sequence in Naughty Marietta remains perhaps my favourite scene of the studio era. (2)



A Book for Her by Bridget Christie (2015) - A shocking, impassioned, insightful, incisive, passionate and hysterical* book about where comedy and feminism intersect**, from the most blistering, blissfully funny talent on the current stand-up scene. It notably overuses one joke format, is occasionally unfocused and has more than its fair share of typos, but I loved it to pieces. Give it to the feminist in your life. Or to the unreconstructed sexist prick. Either works. (3.5)

*as in 'funny'. I'm not saying Bridget is hysterical, or that all women are. Though they are. **this is a pun about intersectional feminism. Hear me roar.



Hangmen (The Royal Court Theatre)
- In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh returns to the London stage with a killer new play about the country's second best hangmen (David Morrissey) - on the day that hanging is abolished. It's both perilously dark and astonishingly funny, McDonagh weaving together his comic and thriller-ish strands with utter majesty, as a mysterious blonde stranger appears in Morrissey's Oldham pub, setting in motion a truly grisly chain of events. After the partial misfire that was his Hollywood debut, Seven Psychopaths, this is a stunning, seamless return to form from one of the sharpest, wittiest and most interesting writers working today, a work so incredibly entertaining that it's only when the dust settles that you realise there was real meat on these bones. Perhaps its ending is telegraphed a little too clearly considering the near-constant surprises served up beforehand, but it's a must-see for anyone who loves the stage, with a superb ensemble, a couple of dazzling coups de théâtre and the best new material you'll hear this year. (4) (Also in the interval I met Kate Tempest and she recommended me an early McDonagh play. I love Kate Tempest. I'll let you know when I've read it.)

The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess Theatre) - A neat idea that doesn't quite work in practice, as we watch an am-dram production fall to pieces in a litany of minor ways. It's too slapsticky, its farcical elements don't make sense and too many of the running performances and running gags are unforgivably broad* (a sound engineer who loves Duran Duran? I mean, really?), though there are a few jokes that really land - including a killer one about improv - and the way that James Marlowe's incompetent thespian repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with his bashful grin is rather delightful. (2.5)

*unforgivably in a transitory theatrical context, I have forgiven them all now


Thanks for reading.

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