Okay, let’s be real clear right from the start: this film is a complete masterpiece. I know this is subjective but, for me, I’m talking certainly in the top 200 films of all time, maybe even in the top 100. It’s one of those rare movies you can pretty much watch over and over, always seeing new details, always revealing a little more depth. I just watched it again, after god knows how many times, and once again it hit me hard and deep. Just absolutely fucking stunning.
Of course it was both a commercial and critical flop on release in 1955, so much so that Charles Laughton never directed another film – it was his first and last directorial work. Un-fucking-believable.
One of the things that makes it so powerful is its depiction of the complete and utter helplessness of lost yet innocent children. For anyone who grew up desperately wanting someone to care for them, Lillian Gish’s character is going to resonate with a lot of emotional power. One of the ironies of the film is the apparent fact that Laughton hated children – including the two who were the centerpiece of the film. And yet somehow it all works…
Balancing out the goodness of Gish’s character we have Robert Mitchum in what is quite possibly the defining role of his career. His portrayal of Harry Powell as a murderous, psychopathic serial killer posing as a preacher in depression-era America is once-seen-never-forgotten. There is a creepiness to his character that is extremely disturbing – using religion as his cover on the unsuspecting rubes. His treatment of Shelley Winters is both horrifying and painful to watch, yet there is a ring of truth to the whole thing that makes it even more unsettling. Yes children, beware – this is what adults are capable of.
When these simple-minded “god-fearing” church folk then turn into a lynch mob one is left feeling very queasy indeed. Only the children are innocent – murderous violence seems to lie just beneath the surface of all adults, even the church goers. I guess it’s not that difficult to see why audiences in 1955 didn’t flock to see it – it’s still disturbing in 2019. Maybe some things never change.
Stanley Cortez was the cinematographer and holy fuck – let’s just say this is another example of why he’s a legend! It’s shot in gorgeous black and white with set design that has to be seen to be believed. Interiors where bedrooms are made to look like churches holding scenes of unspeakable cruelty and murder, overhead shots (from a plane?) of the town and its people, the underwater scene of a woman’s corpse tied to the seat of a sunken car, her hair languorously flowing with the current, mirrored by the underwater reeds.
And then there is the river sequence – a long, haunting scene of the children floating down the river (an incredible visual metaphor for life) in a skiff, aimlessly being guided by the currents. Each shot is like a surreal art tableau – the boy and his little sister, hungry and dirty, often sleeping in the moonlight, floating down what may or may not be a set in long shot, with the foreground populated by small woodland creatures.
At one point we see an owl watching a small rabbit from a tree, off camera we hear it swoop down and the cries of the small animal as it dies, the children oblivious and sleeping, floating downriver in the background. Immediately following the death of the innocent at the hands of a predator we hear Lillian Gish’s voice over telling us what all damaged children already know: “It’s a hard world for little things.”