Friday, September 21, 2007

The Night of the Hunter Screening

If you are around don't miss the screening of The Night of the Hunter at the museum of modern art tomorrow in the afternoon. If nothing goes wrong I will probably be there. That will make it my most-watched film ever breaking the previous record held by DDLJ (three times). I am of course talking about watching in a theatre, not on TV or DVD.

Now that I am on the topic, a few words about the bfi classics book on the film written by Simon Callow which I read recently. Callow is the author of well-received biographical studies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles which makes him well-placed to write a book on the film, since it famously remained the first and the last directorial effort of Laughton. It also took Welles' overheated expressionist style to new extremes and in completely new directions. (Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer of the film, had earlier worked with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons, which actually I have not yet seen.)

The book is slightly disappointing because it doesn't really say much about the utterly singular style of the film, at least not much that is not already known. How did German Expressionism, Biblical allegory, Grimm fairy tales, Orson Welles, film noir and folkloric rural Americana come together in the same film? It does try to find its origins in the life and career of two main actors behind the film - Charles Laughton and James Agee who adapted the screenplay from the original novel by Davis Grubb. But like most of the biographical studies the stylistic choices are never convincingly explained.

The book in the end scores where it recounts the interesting production history, specially the pre-production. James Agee was an acclaimed writer and film critic but had a limited script writing experience. He had collaborated with John Huston on the script for The African Queen. When he got a chance to work on the script for this film he was already struggling with alcoholism. When he was done he ended up with a 350 page unfilmable mammoth. As the legend goes the producer of the film Paul Gregory, who was a good friend of Laughton and had difficult relationship with Agee, said that he threw the script back to him and Laughton had to rewrite the entire script on his own from scratch. This Callow says is not true. It is true that the script that Agee wrote was highly overwritten and had a lot more than what could be put into a feature film but it was finally the script that was made into the film. From his stage work Laughton had a long experience of script-editing and he used this experience to whittle down the script to a manageable size. For a long time the first draft of the script was thought to have been lost, but was discovered a couple of years back and it confirmed what Callow says in the book. (Callow wrote this book before the discovery of the draft.) Callow also excerpts a moving correspondence between Agee and Laughton. After Agee perhaps realized his folly he wrote to Laughton asking him to remove his name from the film's credit sequence and acknowledging the extra work that Laughton had to do on the script. Agee was in the last stages of his alcoholism. He would soon die of complications related to alcohol abuse a few months before the film was released. The film's credit sequence retained his name. (It is in sharp contrast to other controversies regarding the authorship of the film in which principals fight for their share of the fame. Most prominent and long-lasting perhaps being that of the authorship of Citizen Kane.)

The book praises Laughton's talents profusely. Callow says he was that rare type, an actor who was also a great creative artist. He also highlights his relationship with the official church (he was extremely hostile to it), his struggles with his own homosexuality and his love of children. He wanted to become a father but his wife refused to have any children after she discovered his homosexuality. He spent much of his later life lecturing children on classic literature and mythology, some of that went into the character of Lillian Gish too. Callow also briefly discusses the careers of Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters. Mitchum, I have always thought, was far luckier than he was talented. He is, of course, extra ordinary in this film. And so is the entire supporting cast. Even when the acting is a little awkward, as is the case with the young girl playing Pearl, it looks more like a bad and awkward nightmare, which it actually is. He also talks about the haunting music score by Walter Schumann, which is superlative too. I wish he had discussed the individual scenes in more detail like the haunting scene inside the lake or the boat-scene with the two kids, or the strange Caligari-sque set-design. He touches on all these topics but doesn't say anything new or special.

Recently a lot of archival material including the initial rushes and outtakes about the film have been discovered and it is being preserved in film museums. Fans of the film have been clamouring and petitioning for a DVD release with all the new material but so far it remains out of sight. It is available on a bare-bones dvd which is better than nothing at all but it remains beyond debate and argument that it is one film which deserves a very special treatment. A review of the book from the complete review with more links at the bottom. An interview with Paul Gregory with a nice picture of Laughton here.

10 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

If I recall right, The Magnificent Ambersons is quite controversial because the studio's version looks nothing like what Welles envisioned. I've seen some version of it - there were interesting scenes, of course, this being a Welles movie, but it really didn't make much sense. The ending was very abrupt.

My favorite Welles is "Touch of Evil", followed by "The Lady from Shanghai". "Chimes at Midnight" is brilliant, but Welles' narcissism always puts me off.

Alok said...

My favourite Welles film is the one he didn't really make - The Third Man. It brilliantly exploits his inherent narcissism and the megalomania of his personality. He later confirmed that he had nothing to do with the direction and his only contribution to the film was the classic cuckoo clock speech but still it couldn't have been made without Welles' prior stylistic innovations.

Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin all are great, if also flawed, which only makes them more interesting. I haven't seen Chimes but his Othello is quite good too. I guess he would be a good fit for the Falstaff character too.

puccinio said...

''The Night of the Hunter'' was as Jacques Rivette said the greatest amateur film ever made.

One thing that was equally important though was the influence from another great German - Bertolt Brecht.

Laughton worked with Brecht(clashed with more's the word) for - ''Life of Galileo'' and with this film you can see him using Brechtian irony and folklore as part of his conceit.

The most famous Brechtian image is the scene where both Rev. Powell and Lillian Gish sing spirituals only with Lilian Gish sitting on an armchair holding a gun(a direct parody of the famous painting ''Whistler's Mother'').

And by the way about the Citizen Kane authorship, there's no controversy(that debate came about due to Pauline Kael's false academia) read the wikipedia page of that film.

By the way in response to your quip about Welles...

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It brilliantly exploits his inherent narcissism and the megalomania of his personality.
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Which book have you been reading about him...anything by David Thomson(a.k.a the worst biographer of cinema) I presume?

Welles wasn't narcissistic at all. He was generous, kind, witty and intelligent his tragic flaw being his lack of organization.

And in any case many of the best directors had their flaws, Lang was an egotistic tyrant with an umbermensch fixation, John Ford was a mean old cuss, Hitchcock was a shameless self promoter, Howard Hawks was the biggest liar in Hollywood with gambling debts a hill high while Josef von Sternberg was the most pompous jerk that ever lived. Why does any of that matter when they made great films?

And about 'The Magnificent Ambersons' read Robert Carringer's book on it. Interestingly you say that ''The Third Man'' captures Welles best, well actually the role closest to him, to who he is(partly at least) is George Amberson Minafer played by Tim Holt...among his films that is.

And another thing...
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it couldn't have been made without Welles' prior stylistic innovations.
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Actually it could have...Welles was influenced by Sternberg, Ford and Wyler and it's possible that Carol Reed saw their films as well but the main influence of this film is Italian Neo-Realism whcih is obvious since it was shot on location in war-torn Austria...drawing from current trends. Not that Welles didn't influence it but that it was very much possible without him.

And many people who think that the film could ever have been directed by Welles base it on chiarascuro and expressionistic backgrounds but that's not where Welles' signature is, it's in his editing and the editing structure of the film is not like Welles' in the least.

Alok said...

the Citizen Kane authorship controversy is already settled. It was just a representative case and many other films had similar debates too. I just wanted to contrast those cases with this film. Laughton had to edit and rework the original script but refused to take any official credit even when Agee actually asked him to.

Yes, I have read that David Thomson book on Welles :) One of the most idiotic and infuriating biographies or perhaps any film related book I have ever read. But it is not really related to that book.. Welles' narcissism is well known and what is specially noticeable is that you can actually see this in the roles he wrote and played in his films. In most cases it fits perfectly with his worldview like most of his masterpieces (like in kane, harry lime, touch of evil) and in some cases it was actually the opposite like in his Kafka adaptation. Welles' version of The Trial still provides a fascinating glimpse into Welles' worldview and how it contrasts with Kafka's. In that sense it is a very interesting (though very flawed too) film adaptation.

I haven't seen The Magnificent Ambersons in whatever version it is available. I want to see it desperately. Will try to locate something soon.

Also about the Welles signature, for me it is his self-conscious use of low angle shots and in fact in general his use of non-subjective extreme angles. The Third Man is full of those... It is true many silent films used the technique before him but it is only with him that those extremely stylistic choices merged with a complex narrative storytelling. The Third Man to me feels like a perfect fusion of that style with a complex and specific story.

puccinio said...

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I haven't seen The Magnificent Ambersons in whatever version it is available. I want to see it desperately. Will try to locate something soon.
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Well you really don't have to locate it, WB released a DVD of it and that's the longest available version. The tragedy of that film is that it's a ruined masterpiece sabotaged by the producers and so as beautiful as it is it's extremely frustrating.

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Also about the Welles signature, for me it is his self-conscious use of low angle shots and in fact in general his use of non-subjective extreme angles.
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Welles was a genius in using that but then low-angles were bread-and-butter of German Cinema and actually Hollywood movies as well and...actually each and every shot of a film made by the director is self-conscious in so far as it is placed there for a reason.

The chief reason why ''Citizen Kane'' was so innovative was less it's use of extreme camera angles then the fact that it merged so many different film styles for the sole purpose of creating a new style of realism...and Orson Welles was a realist. Well a realist in the way Caravaggio was a realist.

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The Third Man is full of those... It is true many silent films used the technique before him but it is only with him that those extremely stylistic choices merged with a complex narrative storytelling.
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As is ''Odd Man Out'' the film made by Carol Reed before the film and many other Films Noir in Hollywood as well as Fritz Lang films. Sorry if I sound confrontational it's just that I get tired of people simplifying Welles to a few camera angles and tropes when he was a singularly complex film-maker. Many of the techniques which Welles pioneered in his very first film existed before.

Deep focus existed in John Ford's ''The Grapes of Wrath'', ''The Long Voyage Home'' both shot by Gregg Toland the same DP as ''Citizen Kane'' and Jean Renoir, the finest French Film-maker was able to achieve it in his classics of the 30's as well.

What was revolutionary was the melange of styles in that film and how brilliantly it worked with the form.

Alok said...

Not belittling his achievements and neither simplifying history of film style but those stylistic conventions have (for good or for bad) become associated with him. I personally think it is reasonable because he really does make the audiences aware of the film style unlike many of his predecessors. for example Depth of focus may have been used by filmmakers before but it was he who manipulated and exploited it to the hilt....

puccinio said...

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Not belittling his achievements and neither simplifying history of film style but those stylistic conventions have (for good or for bad) become associated with him.
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And what does association have to do with anything? In any case at the time of the ''The Third Man'' there was none of that association with Welles anyway since his reputation wasn't built up yet.

It's just that people get mixed up calling that film the best Welles film not directed by him when it does a huge injustice to the other makers of the film. I mean British Cinema hasn't produced that many great films so why deny credit when it finally achieves something.

And Rosenbaum wrote an essay on that film(try finding it on the net) where he's amazed that people ever thought that Welles directed it in the first place.

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I personally think it is reasonable because he really does make the audiences aware of the film style unlike many of his predecessors.
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Watch Sternberg and tell me he doesn't make you aware of the style of the film!!! I am not trying to de-mystify ''Citizen Kane'' just hoping people get a better appreciation of the film rather than simply highlighting it's most superficial elements.

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for example Depth of focus may have been used by filmmakers before but it was he who manipulated and exploited it to the hilt....
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He certainly made it de rigeur that's for sure. But then Renoir was already using depth-of-focus in ''The Rules of the Game'' as extensively as Welles was. And Ford was a genius at using those shots in location but where Welles was innovative was that he used it in domestic scenes like the flashback to his home as a kid when his mother sends him away and later when those dancing girls sing ''It's Mister Kane'' and of course Xanadu, he wanted the domestic to be as three-dimensional as the rest.

Which is what makes it such a staggering achievement of realism.

For further details read Robert L. Carringer's ''The Making of Citizen Kane'' far and away the Bible of all the Kanenites.

Alok said...

I have read Rosenbaum's essay and needless to say was not particularly happy with his faint praise and charges of superficiality...

To this Reed added the Wellesian visual motifs of shadows and tilted angles, though they don't function as dramatic and metaphysical markers but simply conjure up a mood and atmosphere: shadows equal mystery and skulduggery, tilted angles mean everything's slightly off-kilter. It's a loose strategy for depicting the rubble-strewn Vienna of that period......This is why I find it easier to speak about artfulness and stylishness in this movie than about art and style; its pleasures are less those of a unified expression than those of several independent discourses merging in superficial harmony.

I didn't want to attribute the film's achievements to Welles, though my remark does make it sound like that. Just that this film does fit the adjective of "Wellesian" -- such nomenclature will inevitably simplify aspects of style but it is also a useful shortcut, a handy way to situate it in a continuous film history...

I am now all geared about watching it again. Haven't seen it in some time. This is another film I never tire of rewatching.

puccinio said...

Well Rosenbaum tends to be a bit of a pain but he's at the very least humble and unlike people like Hoberman and that jerk Michael Atkinson doesn't like to show off his knowledge of French to prove his credentials.

He's also scarily able to pinpoint the greatness or weakness of a film and connect it to the context. 'Course he has his
offdays like that horrible attack on Bergman a month back.

But the reason I referred to it was it's references to the fact that Welles didn't like his association with the character and wasn't like it at all. And the film is only Wellesian to a superficial degree since the editing structure as well as use of sound isn't like his at all and that's where his signature lies.

And the film is more obviously inspired by Neo-Realism than Welles...and Welles didn't have a high opinion of Neo-Realism.

I personally do think that the ''The Third Man'' is a great film and one of the finest fiction attempts to reveal the reality of the Holocaust and the mindset of the people who conducted it.

It doesn't take much intelligence to figure out who Lime represents when he says would you care if one of those dots stopped moving. Harry Lime is really the idea of Nazism or a representative of it and after all the film is set in Vienna. As Billy Wilder once said about his homeland, ''They are brilliant at reminding people that Mozart was Austrian and Hitler was not.''

In that regard the film is more Graham Greene's than others since he was forever interested in political and personal morality intertwining and was left-wing to the core.

It's also anticapates Welles' own anti-fascist, anti-racist masterpiece ''Touch of Evil''.

People often come and say that they like Harry Lime more than Holly Martins. The reason is that few people are like Martins and most are like Harry Lime and that should be a great cause for concern for them. Harry Lime is basically a collaborator and simply like those bureaucracts and soldiers who said that they 'were just doing their job'.

Alok said...

Not just Nazism... all totalitarian ideologies start from that basic belief. people are just dots devoid of individuality and unique selves. once you turn people into a collective abstraction, it is just a few more steps to real moral horrors.

I actually love the Holly Martins character. Joseph Cotten remains an underrated actor, specially unjust in this case because Welles steals the show without him doing anything much. the story itself is told in such a way that it is all about Harry Lime from the beginning to the end.

Cotten's portrayal also works because Greene and Reed make him a figure of satire -- both because of his clueless naivete which is presented as peculiarly American and his credentials as a writer of pulp westerns (some of Greene's own snobbery must have gone into that too.) that literary discussion scene is so hilarious... when he is asked about his views on the crisis of faith in western literature or modernist technique of James Joyce... You laugh at him but still you can't leave his side. Also his scenes with Alida Valli.

Cotten was also great in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.