Robert Mitchum

The Night Of The Hunter

1955
MGM/UA

Produced by Paul Gregory
Directed by Charles Laughton
Screenplay by James Agee and Charles Laughton (uncredited)
Based on the novel by David Grubb

My disdain for most so-called horror movies is by now well known. I can sit through most horror movies and never flinch or blink. The first time I saw “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” during it’s original theatrical run my friends had to tell me to shut up because I thought the movie was a spoof and I was laughing out loud. The “Friday The 13th” movies are just dumb. Except for the first one that actually was a nifty little slasher flick. I can watch the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Phantasm” movies they same way I read comic books or watch animated movies. They’re fun to watch. But scary? Nah. “The Blair Witch Project”? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve been to Chinese take out places in Brooklyn that are scarier. “Open Water”? You must really be joking.

Movies that scare me are movies that might actually happen to me. Take the “Out-Of-Towners” which is supposedly a comedy. But you watch Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis who are stuck in New York during a horrendous garbage strike.   Everything goes wrong including their hotel losing their reservation, their luggage being lost and they get robbed and are forced to sleep in Central Park, searching for their dinner from garbage cans.  By the time you get to the end of the movie you may be wondering what the hell you were laughing at. Or how about “In Cold Blood” with Robert Blake and Scott Wilson who choose a family at random to murder.  Or “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” where Joan Crawford is an invalid in a wheelchair terrorized by her crazed, alcoholic sister played by Bette Davis. Or “Deliverance” where a group of city guys go canoeing down a river and end up in a life or death struggle with a gang of backwoods hillbillies. I think by now you get my point as to what I consider a real horror movie.

So that brings us to this movie: I’m always being asked: “Derrick, what’s the scariest, most frightening movie you’ve ever seen? What makes you scream like a pigtailed nine year old girl every time you watch it?”

My answer with no hesitation is THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is sharing a cell with a condemned man doomed to hang (Peter Graves) In a moment of weakness the doomed man confides to Harry that he’s hidden $10,000 dollars in his house. When Harry is released he takes the guise of a wandering preacher and makes his way to the man’s hometown. Harry quickly ingratiates himself into the community and even romances the man’s widow, Willa (Shelly Winters). Willa’s two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) don’t trust the preacher one little inch. The children know where the money is and they’re both determined not to let the preacher get his hands on it. They clearly see him for what he is.  Harry marries Willa and ruthlessly murders her in one of the most blood-freezing scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie that is all the more shocking in that Willa appears to be a willing participant in her own murder.

And if that wasn’t hair-raising enough, there’s a scene where it’s shown what Harry does with her body that I won’t dare spoil here. It’s a scene that truly has to be seen to be believed. John and Pearl go on the run down the river but Harry Powell relentlessly follows them, a nightmarish figure on a horse that is as patient as Death itself. The two children are eventually taken in by an old woman (Lillian Gish) whose faith in God and a loaded shotgun is unshakeable. The movie comes down to a battle in an isolated farmhouse between these avatars of Good and Evil not just for the money but also for the souls of the children.

Part of the reason why THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is so frightening to me is the way it’s filmed. This was the only movie directed by Charles Laughton and he borrowed heavily from German Expressionism to create a dream-like world. Considering that the main characters are children, it’s an appropriate way to tell the story since it can be looked on as a child’s nightmare. It’s not a realistic movie as the sets actually do look like sets and the inside of houses are stylized with strange angles. But it works. It creates its own world that you buy into because it may remind you of your own dreams. It’s a wonderfully fascinating film just to look at with some truly frightening moments.

Robert Mitchum is not just a great actor. He’s a titanic actor and his role as Reverend Harry Powell is one of the finest he’s ever played. He’s got a classic scene where he explains why he has the words ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed on his hands. The scene where he murders Willa is almost unbearable to watch. And when you get to the last half of the movie where he’s terrorizing the children and the old woman at their isolated farmhouse I defy you not to want to hide under the covers. And there’s a scene where John and Pearl are hiding in a dark basement and Harry is at the top of the stairs and calling down to them: “Chiiiiiilllllll….dren?” that has been copied thousands of times in inferior movies.

Shelly Winters is very good in her role here in this movie. She always did do a good job of playing sexually repressed woman who seem just two steps away from exploding into orgasms. And it doesn’t hurt that back during the 50’s she truly was smokin’ hot. I think that many of today’s moviegoers are only familiar with her films from the 70’s and 80’s. Take a look at the movies she did in the 50’s and 60’s and you’ll see why Shelly Winters was considered a blond bombshell comparable to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.

Lillian Gish does a terrific job as Rachel Cooper, the old woman who takes in John and Pearl. Despite her age she’s a formidable opponent and there’s a wonderful scene where Harry is sitting on his horse out in the field and Rachel is sitting on her porch in her rocking chair with her loaded shotgun across her lap. Both of them are quietly singing the same hymn. It’s a powerful scene.

So should you see THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER? Absolutely. Netflix, buy, borrow or steal the DVD or Blu-Ray.  I don’t care. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a movie I’ve seen maybe a dozen times and every time it still scares me. And if you want to be truly scared outta your wits, turn out all the lights in your house or apartment and watch THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

By yourself.

Go on.  I dare you.

93 minutes

The Wrath of God

1972
MGM

Produced by William S. Gilmore
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Screenplay by Ralph Nelson and James Graham
Based on a novel by James Graham

Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a sub-genre of the western that had these elements: a group of American outlaws/mercenaries/rogues would find themselves in Mexico or South America at the turn of the century and get involved in what amounted to a suicide mission that circumstances forced them to accept. There’s usually a huge amount of money waiting for them at the end of the mission but during the course of the adventure the outlaws would find their long buried sense of justice and honor awakened and they would abandon the money to take up the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed peasantry. This is pretty much the plot of movies such as “The Wild Bunch” “The Professionals” “Duck, You Sucker” and “Vera Cruz” but I’ve never seen this plot worked in such a goofy and flat out off the wall manner as we see in THE WRATH OF GOD.

Emmett Keogh (Ken Hutchinson) is a wildass Irishman stuck in South America during the 1920’s. He’s blackmailed into driving a truck north by Jennings (Victor Buono) who tells him it’s a load of whiskey that will fetch a helluva price in the United States that is suffering under Prohibition. Since Jennings was the guy who arraigned for his passport to be stolen, Emmett has no choice to agree. Along the way he meets Father Oliver Van Horn (Robert Mitchum) who is one of the strangest priests that Emmett has ever met since Father Van Horn drinks liquor like it’s lemonade, swears like a Kansas City pimp and totes a huge black valise carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun. It’s a weapon that Father Van Horn knows as well as a monkey knows his coconuts which he demonstrates when Emmett and Father Van Horn have to rescue an Indian girl named Chela (Paula Pritchett) from being gang raped by the soldiers of Colonel Santilla (John Colicos) The two men are forced to go on the run with the girl in tow but they’re caught by Colonel Santilla’s troops and Emmett discovers that the truck actually carries guns meant for the rebels. Jennings has also been captured by Santilla and the three men are made an offer they can’t refuse: in return for their lives they have to agree to kill De La Plata (Frank Langella) a local rebel warlord who is causing Santilla a great deal of trouble.

Posing as mining engineers, Jennings and Emmett infiltrate De La Plata’s fortress-like hacienda while Van Horn takes up residence in the village church, which has been desecrated. It turns out that De Le Plata hates priests and personally killed the last one himself. Del La Plata’s mother (Rita Hayworth) begs her son not to kill this priest and De La Plata agrees not to since Van Horn saves his mother’s life when the local mine caves in. You see, the mine is filled with gold and De La Plata has terrorized the villagers into digging it out for him. But the mine is horribly unsafe and he needs the expertise of mining engineers to get it out. Of course, the three outlaws have to kill De La Plata before he figures out that Jennings and Emmett know as much about mining as I do about Chinese arithmetic. The situation is complicated by Emmett’s relationship with Chela who has fallen in love with him and Van Horn’s increasing desire to live up to the trust the villagers have in him as a priest. And while the outlaws have no loyalty to Santilla, they also see that living under De La Plata’s rule isn’t any day at the beach either. So they make a decision. And that’s when the story really takes off as Father Van Horn begins to conscript the villagers to stand up for themselves against De La Plata, Chela marries Emmett and Jennings makes plans to break outta Dodge and save his own ass.

You see? I told you it was goofy. What makes THE WRATH OF GOD so much fun to watch is that you never know where this damn movie is going to take you or what’s going to happen next. There’s a plot twist every five minutes and just when you think you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t. There are a lot of really funny one-liners thrown back and forth between the three leading men and from the amount of humor in the story you might think halfway through it that it’s a spoof of the genre. I mean, this is a movie that has Victor Buono as an action hero, for cryin’ out loud. We’re talking about a guy who’s best known role was probably as the King Tut villain on the “Batman” 1960′s TV show. In this movie he has a great scene where he drives a car like a battering ram into the barricaded gates of De La Plata’s fortress while firing a Thompson sub-machine and then he jumps out to take on the chief henchman with his sword cane. And he’s totally convincing during his fight scenes of which he has several. And he has a bunch of great one liners, such as “We’re going to get along famously” which is used in this movie the same way “I have a bad feeling about this” was used in “Star Wars”

I’ve never seen Ken Hutchinson in a movie before and have no idea who he is but he’s immensely likeable as the wily Emmett who seems to tumble in and out of adventures as easily as you or I eat fried chicken. A lot of the humor in the movie comes from him as he’s constantly thrown into situations where he’s clearly way in over his head but he manages to come through with luck and sheer dogged determination that even Dirk Pitt might admire. And as for Robert Mitchum…well, he’s flat out terrific in this. For much of the movie we’re never sure what the deal with Father Van Horn is.  Not only does he carry an arsenal of machine guns and grenades in that big black valise of his but he also has $50,000 dollars that he hints he got by robbing banks. He has a great scene where he tells the villagers that he’s going to hold an all night service in the church where he performs weddings, baptizes babies and hears confessions where it made clear that he knows the rituals of The Catholic Church inside and out but he also indulges in decidedly un-priestly activities like sleeping with whores, drinking whiskey like water and cussing like crazy. He also carries a Bible that has a concealed gun inside and his cross hides a six-inch blade. Nobody in the movie really knows if this guy is actually one really badass priest or a really eccentric badass who likes to pretend he’s a priest until he spills the beans near the end of the movie.

Robert Mitchum is one of those old type movie stars I love because he looks like a man who actually looks like he’s tough enough to kick your ass with just a look, unlike a lot of the current crop of movie stars who are just too damn pretty to look like they’re as tough as the characters they’re portraying on screen. Robert Mitchum comes from the crop of actors I like to call ‘Old School Tough’. I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Steve McQueen. You know what I’m talking about. Whenever he’s on screen in this movie you just can’t take your eyes off him, as you want to know just like the other characters what the real deal with him is.

There are a lot of great action sequences in this movie, especially when the three outlaws finally take on De La Plata’s army in a ferocious shootout in front of the church and the final showdown at the fortress. In between we’ve got a whole series of double-crosses, fistfights, staredowns and showdowns that will make your head giddy. Trust me, this isn’t a boring movie. In fact, despite having been made back in 1972, THE WRATH OF GOD seemed to me a lot more of how current action/adventure are made with it’s healthy mix of violent action, comedy and eccentric characters which is why I think it makes enjoyable watching today.

So should you see THE WRATH OF GOD? Hell yes. If you’re a big Robert Mitchum fan it’s worth seeing just for him alone as obviously he’s having a great time with his role and the material. Victor Buono and Ken Hutchinson also turn in great performances as well. Frank Langella has a wonderful time with his role as a bad guy and his scene in the church where he confronts Robert Mitchum and tells him why he hates priests and God is an example of just plain good solid acting from both of them that goes a long way to establishing both of their characters and sets up the conflict between them nicely. THE WRATH OF GOD works as a really good cinematic pulp adventure that should be enjoyed for what it is: a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the snacks and beverages of your choice. If you get Turner Classic Movies on your satellite/cable provider you can wait for it to show up there but if you’re a dedicated pulp or Robert Mitchum fan, spring for the rental fee and give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.

Rated: PG
111 Minutes