Film Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Release Date: July 26th, 1955 (Des Moines premiere)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Written by: James Agee
Based on: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Music by: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin

Paul Gregory Productions, United Artists, 92 Minutes

Review:

“There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” – Rev. Harry Powell

I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid but having revisited it now, I was torn as to which Robert Mitchum character was more evil, this one or his role as Max Cady in Cape Fear. Regardless of which you choose, there is no one from this era that quite stirs up the intimidating, creepy vibe like Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum is perfection in this film. Also, Shelley Winters was solid and just a heartbreaking character. The scenes the two shared were so uncomfortable that I’m sure it left the audiences of the 1950s pretty disturbed.

As unhinged and as crazy as Mitchum was in Cape Fear, I do think that his character here, the Reverend Harry Powell, gets the edge. For one, he always speaks about the word of God and God talking through him but he is an actual serial killer, driven by greed and willing to kill innocent women and children just to get a bag of money that his former cellmate hid before incarceration.

This is a truly chilling film and there are few scenes in motion picture history more effective than the moment where the runaway kids are hiding in the barn and see the silhouette of Mitchum on his horse, slowly trotting across the horizon line, singing his biblical songs while looking for them.

Additionally, the scene with Shelley Winters dead in the front seat of a car at the bottom of the river is shocking, even by today’s standards. At the same time, there is a real haunting beauty in that shot and it’s that moment that really takes this film from being a dark thriller to something a bit more enchanting and viciously surreal.

Another moment that really stuck out to me, visually, was when the kids escaped the basement with Mitchum running up the stairs, reaching out like a murderous madman trying to grab them. It’s a quick moment but I immediately equated Mitchum to a natural predator desperately lashing out with animal-like instinct.

The kid actors in this, who take up most of the screen time, are actually pretty incredible. Most kid actors are annoying, especially in the 1950s, but these two felt like real frightened kids from any era. And the bravery of the boy was both uncanny and inspiring.

The Night of the Hunter is a bonafide classic and for good reason. If you love Robert Mitchum and have never seen this, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.

It boasts some of the best cinematography and lighting I’ve ever seen, as well as perfect set design and a mesmerizing tone that feels a bit fantastical but also gritty and real.

Man, I just love this movie.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the original Cape Fear, as well as some of Mitchum’s noir pictures: Out of the Past, Crossfire, Where Danger Lives, Angel Face and The Locket.

Film Review: Angel Face (1953)

Also known as: Murder Story (original script title), The Bystander, The Murder (working titles)
Release Date: January 2nd, 1953 (London premiere)
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard, Chester Erskine
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Howard Hughes Presents, RKO Radio Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Charles, at times your charm wears dangerously thin. Right now it’s so thin I can see through it.” – Mrs. Catherine Tremayne

This was a film that Otto Preminger didn’t want to direct but he was persuaded by producer Howard Hughes, who wanted Preminger to use his rule on the film’s set to torture Jean Simmons. What can I say, Hollywood was sick. Not that much has changed, as a lot of really dark shit has been brought to light over the last few years.

A scene where Mitchum slaps Simmons was one instance of the torture that the starlet had to endure. Preminger demanded retake after retake where he instructed Mitchum to hit Simmons harder each time. Mitchum, having enough, walked over to Preminger, whacked him across the face and said, “Is that hard enough for you, Otto?”

This stuff, as far as I know, has never been revealed until TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller discussed it when this film was recently featured on the show. He had done an event with Simmons and she had a hard time, went backstage and eventually told Muller of the bad memories of her experience making Angel Face.

The script was apparently shit, which is the main reason why Preminger didn’t want to direct the film but there were rewrites and he was given control over it. The only catch, was that he had to make Jean Simmons’ life hell.

All that insanity aside, this did turn out to be a pretty good picture. Maybe all that real life tension and drama carried over into the performances by Simmons and Mitchum.

The film also benefits from having that standard RKO film-noir look. Preminger has a stellar eye behind the camera but the cinematography of Harry Stradling was really good. Not quite at the level of his Academy Award winning films: The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady but he was certainly on his A-game and made a fine looking picture in the noir style.

The Dimitri Tiomkin score is strong but it doesn’t stand out among a lot of the more prolific film-noir pictures of the day but I did enjoy it and it helped marry the tone of the emotional context of the film, as well as its visual look. Everything came together really well but the score was the glue.

It’s unfortunate that Jean Simmons had to put up with such abuse on set. Frankly, it’s pretty unforgivable. Still, despite this, Angel Face is a much better than average film-noir.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Otto Preminger films: LauraFallen Angel and Anatomy of a Murder, as well as some of Robert Mitchum’s other noir pictures: Out of the PastThe RacketHis Kind of Woman and The Locket.

Film Review: The Locket (1946)

Also known as: What Nancy Wanted (working title)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946
Directed by: Jason Brahm
Written by: Sheridan Gibney
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum, Gene Raymond

RKO Radio Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Okay… you be the dropper, I’ll be the deer!” – Nancy Monks Blair Patton

There are two things I really like: classic film-noir and Robert Mitchum. When you put these two things together and under the banner of RKO Radio Pictures, you can bet that I’ll be interested in seeing it.

However, while this is noir, it isn’t my cup of tea.

The story is about a woman who has been married multiple times, has a very checkered past and is just pretty damn shady, in general.

The film plays out showing her life’s story but primarily focusing on her many relationships and how she is a self-absorbed narcissist that doesn’t much care for the wreckage she causes. A real femme fatale but not as cool as most of the other femme fatales from her day. Although, Laraine Day is incredibly beautiful and her charm is effective. Her character just comes off as fairly generic and that’s probably got more to do with the writing and direction than Day’s skill as an actress.

This film is just fairly boring for its subject matter and these stories have been done much better.

The film’s style is noir-esque but lacking in style. There are some good shots and framing in the picture but nothing seems like it fits the great detail and noir aesthetic that was synonymous with RKO’s other pictures in the genre. Everything is just pretty standard and pedestrian and this looks more like a noir picture from Poverty Row than one from a major studio, let alone one that specializes in the style.

The Locket is still an okay watch. To the layman, it will probably be boring but to someone who has invested a lot of time in the film-noir style, it was worth my time and I enjoyed it regardless of what I felt it lacked.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: When Strangers Marry, The Racket, Undercurrent, Angel Face, The Big Steal and My Forbidden Past.

Film Review: Cape Fear (1962)

Also known as: The Executioners (working title)
Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Miami premiere)
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Written by: James R. Webb
Based on: The Executioners by John D. MacDonald
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Telly Savalas

Melville Productions, Talbot Productions, Universal Pictures, 106 Minutes

Review:

“I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget. They ain’t nevah gonna forget it… and neither will you, Counselor! Nevah!” – Max Cady

I had to rectify a grave injustice that I have committed against myself for decades. That injustice was never seeing the original version of Cape Fear. Strangely, I love both Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, plus this has Telly Savalas in it. That alone should have had me on board for this years ago but alas, I didn’t see this wonderful picture until 2018. In my defense, if I had already seen every classic, I wouldn’t be able to be wowed by them the first time.

This is, far and away, better than the remake done by Martin Scorsese and I am a big fan of that picture. That version got in my head when I was a young teen and it never really released its grip. I do need to go back and watch that one too, in the near future.

Anyway, Robert Mitchum is one of the most charismatic actors to ever grace the screen. When Mitchum decides to delve into darker roles though, the audience is in for a treat. Well, if they consider terror as a treat. He’s just so damn good playing such an evil bastard. Between this movie and The Night of the Hunter, he really exists on an evil level in a way that other actors don’t. If you want to see a master of their craft at work, this is a prime example of Robert Mitchum transcending his craft and having a presence that reaches through the screen and haunts your imagination.

Gregory Peck was perfection as the other side of this coin. He represents good and is a solid moral character that believes in law and justice. He is pushed to his limit and almost crosses over to the dark side a few times but ultimately, he keeps his soul clean and pure. If this was made in modern times, the ending would have looked like an obvious attempt at leaving things open for a sequel. But in 1962, goodness prevails without evil being mortally wiped out. Plus, in 2018, they would have had the hero blast a dozen holes into the bad guy while the audience cheered.

This is just a classic tale of good versus evil and that’s why it works so well. There are no bones about how terrible of a person Mitchum’s Max Cady is and the same can be said about the goodness of Peck’s Sam Bowden.

What was surprising about this, at least for me, is that a motion picture from 1962 could cross the lines that this one did. There were the threats of rape and pedophilia, which are disturbing now but imagine seeing this unfold through the eyes of someone in 1962 when film’s were censored by the morality police and the rating system wouldn’t exist for another 6 years.

Cape Fear is near perfect as a straight up thriller. It gives you an immediate sense of danger and dread and slowly simmers for 90 minutes before its nerve wracking climax.

Every actor in this was superb.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: PsychoThe Night of the Hunter and the 1991 Cape Fear remake.

Film Review: Where Danger Lives (1950)

Release Date: July 8th, 1950
Directed by: John Farrow
Written by: Charles Bennett, Leo Rosen
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains, Maureen O’Sullivan

RKO Radio Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I wish you’d stop calling her my daughter. She happens to be my wife!” – Frederick Lannington

Where Danger Lives is a fairly underrated and forgotten film-noir. But it stars Robert Mitchum, so it automatically has a certain level of coolness and solid gravitas. Add in the intense and always engaging Claude Rains and you’ve got something really worthwhile. Plus, Faith Domergue was exceptional as this film’s femme fatale.

I actually didn’t know about this film until Eddie Muller featured it on TCM’s Noir Alley, which is a program you should check out on TCM every Sunday at 10 a.m. EST, if you are a true fan of film-noir. That was not a shameless plug, I just love watching Noir Alley.

This picture is interesting for a lot of reasons. It pairs up two old school badasses, Mitchum and Rains, has a good plot twist when Mitchum’s character suffers a concussion in the middle of the twisty topsy turvy noir-esque proceedings and then starts pitching more narrative curveballs at you.

From a stylisitic standpoint, the film is a pretty standard noir. It’s not visually breathtaking but it is still a beautiful looking picture that is well crafted. It is also directed by John Farrow, whose hand was also in the noir movies, His Kind of Woman, also with Mitchum, and The Big Clock. I’d say this is the best of the three and it is stripped of the flamboyancy that came with the other two. It’s an “on the run” film and the sets are mostly car interiors and road stop locations. It feels grounded in realism more than the others, which had a sort of fantastical grandiose Hollywood feel.

Due to the concussion element of the story, Mitchum’s Dr. Jeff Cameron is in a state of paranoia and confusion. It adds a really interesting dynamic to the film and kind of makes it seem like it could be a big scary hallucination. Mitchum sells it well and him being a doctor going through this condition allows for some good medical explanation of his situation and an understanding of what his fate could be. It makes the film play like a race against time, at least for his character.

The fact that Domergue’s Margo Lannington is nuts and becomes more and more unhinged, also brings another level of instability to the main characters’ dilemma. You know that she isn’t trust worthy and she’s a femme fatale with a bad case of psychosis. This doesn’t bode well for Jeff and his concussed brain. Really, this film is an examination of multiple mental conditions operating in a noir landscape.

The story doesn’t end well for the two main characters, although we get a rare moment where a femme fatale shows some humanity after all the problems she was instrumental in creating. Maybe she actually did care for Jeff and wasn’t just using him like so many other similar characters in the noir narrative style. That, along with the unique type of paranoia on display here, makes this an interesting and worthwhile experience that saved this from becoming a carbon copy of dozens of films before it.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Crossfire (1947)

Release Date: July 22nd, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton
Based on: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Sam Levene, Jacqueline White

RKO Radio Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties.” – Police Captain Finlay

Crossfire is a pretty unique film-noir, as it is a very socially progressive movie for its time. The main crime in the film surrounds the murder of a Jewish man and it is discovered that the murder was inspired by bigotry and hatred. This was pretty heavy stuff for 1947 but kudos to RKO Pictures, Edward Dmytryk and John Paxton for putting this picture together. No, not the John Paxton that helped lead the Chicago Bulls to many NBA championships in the 1990s, he spelled his name “Paxson”. This John Paxton was a screenwriter that breathed life into film-noirs like Cornered and Murder, My Sweet.

This film also stars the three Roberts of film-noir: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Okay, Young wasn’t in a lot of noir but Mitchum and Ryan lived in the genre. Plus, you also have Gloria Grahame, one of the queens of noir. Sam Levene also pops up in this but I feel like he is in almost every noir picture of the 1940s and 1950s. Then again, Elisha Cook Jr. probably has him beat.

Crossfire, despite its star power and its interesting premise, isn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. It’s not a bad movie but it just sort of exists and plays out without a lot of real suspense or tension.

The Academy thought it was pretty damn good though, as it was nominated for five Oscars. Plus, it won the award for Best Social Film at Cannes that year. But awards are typically political statements, even in the 1940s, and the people who hand out awards have always had a bias towards socially conscious cinema. From an accolades perspective, Crossfire greatly benefited from its subject matter.

I don’t mean to sound like I am in any way bashing the picture. It just wasn’t Oscar worthy, in my opinion. Especially in a year where we had Kiss of DeathThe Lady From ShanghaiNightmare AlleyBrute Force and Out of the Past. And those are just some of the film-noirs that I would rank higher not to mention all the other great films from other genres.

The three Roberts all put in solid performances though, as did Grahame. Edward Dmytryk is also a very good director. This is a very good film but when one has to compare it to what else was coming out at the time, it just isn’t on the same level as the films I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

If you love film-noir and any of the actors in this movie, it is still worth your time. I liked the picture and I would certainly watch it again but probably as part of a double feature or marathon.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Release Date: August 8th, 1975
Directed by: Dick Richards
Written by: David Zelag Goodman
Based on: Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Music by: David Shire
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Sylvia Miles, Anthony Zerbe, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack O’Halloran, Joe Spinell, Sylvester Stallone

ITC Entertainment, Avco Embassy Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“[opening lines] This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in L.A. Maybe the rotten cases I’d had. Mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old.” – Philip Marlowe

Farewell, My Lovely is the first of two pictures where Robert Mitchum plays the famous literary private dick, Philip Marlowe. This is also a remake of 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, as both films were adaptations of the Farewell, My Lovely novel by Raymond Chandler.

Additionally, this came out during the 1970s, when neo-noir was starting to flourish, as a resurgence in the noir style began with the success of Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece Chinatown. Plus, period gangster dramas were also gaining popularity for the first time since the 1930s and 1940s due to The Godfather films by Francis Ford Coppola.

Robert Mitchum, a man who was at the forefront of film-noir during its heyday, finally got his chance to play the genre’s most notable male character. He is also the only actor to get a chance to play Marlowe more than just once, as this film was followed up by 1978’s The Big Sleep, a remake of the iconic 1946 film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

In regards to the narrative, there really isn’t all that much that is different from this picture and Murder, My Sweet. Sure, it is more violent and some details have changed but it is essentially the same story. It even has a weird drug trip sequence similar to what we got in the 1944 film.

There really isn’t much to sink your teeth into with this movie. It feels like a pointless and fairly soulless attempt at a reboot of the Marlowe character. The art direction and the cinematography are decent but the only real thing that holds this picture above water is Robert Mitchum, as well as some of the other actors.

Charlotte Rampling is decent but she doesn’t have much to do. Harry Dean Stanton appears but he doesn’t have enough meat to chew on. You also get to see a young Sylvester Stallone and Joe Spinell play some henchmen. The only real standout, other than Mitchum, is Jack O’Halloran as the Moose Malloy character.

I had high hopes for this movie but was pretty much let down once seeing it. I’ll still check out its sequel but this is not one of the better neo-noirs of the 1970s.

Rating: 6/10