Friday, September 30, 2011

Southern Gothic: Night of the Hunter (1955)

Night of the Hunter's genius hinges on a few key sequences, marking pivot points in the narrative and yanking the pastoral Southern setting off its rails. The scenes in between are set-ups and narrative paces, still beautifully shot and skillfully crafted, but they just make it a solid, well-made classic film.  It's the intense, beautiful, harrowing moments when all the film's emotions converge -- those are the moments that elevate Night of the Hunter to a masterpiece.

As far as Southern Gothic, Night of the Hunter seems to set the stage for the rest of the genre. I don't feel qualified to ID it as a direct influence, but look how it anticipates the distinctive elements in each of the Southern Gothic tales we've already seen... four very different tones, but all echoing Charles Laughton's dark fable. Even more wondrous is that fact that each of these later films could only project one of these voices, whereas Night of the Hunter was so polyphonic that it seemed to speak with all of them at once.

Like Winter's Bone, Night of the Hunter is a twisted hybrid of Southern Gothic and film noir, its dark, impressionist spaces mirroring the labyrinthine motivations of its key characters. Though they evoke dramatically different moods, both films are stories of fatherhood wasted by poverty and desperation, and both of them chronicle the children of those fallen fathers trying to fill the void left by this loss.  In this, both films seem to have a clear-eyed view of the world and its cruelty, and of the scraps of hope left in its margins.

And yet, Night of the Hunter dispenses with Winter's Bone's realism in favor of a fairy tale uncanniness, and the whole thing seems to echo with archetype, as if each character represents some indivisible fragment of the human psyche. Femininity is treated rather unfairly, as all the women in Harry's proximity fall under his spell.  Harry is repelled by women, disgusted by even the suggestion of sexuality, and yet, he seems to have a supernatural way of charming them. Is this contradiction within Harry, the murderous acolyte of an abortive spirituality?  Or is it within femininity itself, drawn as it is to its own indulgence and destruction? In tapping this kind of primal language, Night of the Hunter echoes Sling Blade, sharing the latter's themes of fatherhood, abandonment, redemption, and cosmic resonance.

In fact, the kind-hearted Rachel Cooper has the same Christian common sense that Karl seems to have developed in the asylum.  And on the other side of this epic duality, Harry Powell seems to represent what might have happened if pedophile Charles Bushman had been released from the asylum instead of Karl... the embodiment of ultimate evil, somehow slipping through the fingers of the hand of righteousness.

Finally, like Down By Law, Night of the Hunter juxtaposes a crime/prison drama with a story of a journey through the dilipadated South, with particular emphasis on empty shacks and slow drifts through swampland. Just as Zack, Jack, and Roberto were protected from the law by the river, so John and Ruby are protected from Harry, the sinister patriarch, by the water that surrounds their little boat.  And both parties find their journeys' end in the arms of a kind, loving woman whose economic poverty belies her richness of spirit.

In "pure cinema" terms, Night of the Hunter revolves around its sublimely-photographed pivotal scenes: Willa's murder, her subsequent resting place at the bottom of the lake, the dream-like boat ride, the peaceful rest in an empty barn that's interrupted by the dragon's shadow ("Doesn't he ever sleep?"), and the troubled midnight duet of Rachel and Harry.  However, narratively, and in its mythical structure, the film revolves uniquely around Harry himself.  He kicks the film off with his first on-screen victim, and his capture seems to prompt the eruption of the whole genteel community.

Harry is absolutely unique in all these films. Ree and Karl were Southern Gothic heroes; Harry is the inverse of that hero, the dark side of the "dweller in the margins" who uses his position for evil, rather than good. He is outrageously good at penetrating close-knit communities and gaining their support, especially by exploiting the whims of women (not gonna lie, this film's gender politics are pretty dated). Powell then starts spreading his twisted ideology through spiritual gatherings, tapping into the most vicious impulses of the people around him.  He molds the community into something vulnerable and disposed to violence, implanting himself even as he exploits the trust of those he loves.  He is truly a parasite.

Powell's outsider status allows him to seem like a rescuer, a soldier sent from God. At the same time, he harbors his own secret agenda, an inverse of Ree's quest to see her family survive: in Powell, it's greed and jealousy, the desire to profit, and a hatred for women... and he exhibits a sadistic willingess to destroy families in pursuit of these goals. He sustains his rampage with a host of internal contradictions... he's the gentlest fascist, the most pious of the Godless and fallen, a neurotic obsessive who's addicted to betrayal.

Of course, Harry's own influence turns on him.  His sermons were self-righteous peaens to punishment and retribution. When his crimes are finally discovered, the community turns the vitriol that he inspired back on him.  All the Southern Gothic films turn away from a key moment of violence and liberation, and here, the narrative's sudden turn away from Harry's lynching mirrors the camera's original turn away from Ben Harper's murder.  A moment of voyeuristic satisfaction is denied us; nonetheless, Harry's trial makes it clear: he who casts stones is rarely without sin, and karma's a bitch.

Harry Powell is a beautiful, terrifying monster, a legend of a villain. He is the gravitational center of this Southern Gothic film noir masterpiece.

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