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: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Release Date: October 14th, 1959 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding
Based on: Odds Against Tomorrow by William P. McGivern
Music by: John Lewis
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr., Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Robert Earl Jones (uncredited)

HarBel Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you and everything you own!” – Bocco

Wow. I’m probably going to have to adjust my Top 100 Film-Noir list after seeing this picture for the first time in a really long time. It’s pretty damn incredible and much better than the majority of what you’ll find in this great genre or style or whatever you want to classify noir as.

I guess the thing that I love most about this movie is its tone. Unlike most film-noir pictures, it doesn’t have the pristine look of the style. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on manufactured sets with studio lighting. This film gets outside and has a real urban grittiness to it. Even some of the shots of streets look different and almost have this sort of haze, as opposed to the typical crispness you see in a noir picture. However, they did use infrared film in some scenes, which was a deliberate attempt at making this have its own unique visual pizzazz.

The cast in this film is also pretty stacked. You have Harry Belafonte, noir legend Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr. and two superstar female leads in Gloria Grahame and Shelley Winters.

This film is a heist picture but it’s the story leading up to the heist that is the most compelling. Especially in regards to Belafonte’s character. He also has to deal with a lot of racial hatred in the movie and it served as a good historical look into the social climate in America at the time, as this was just a few years away from the large Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

This is well written, well acted, looks great and doesn’t have any real down time or dull moments. I was engaged by this picture from the start all the way to the big, sudden finish. And sure, the finish takes its cue from a better known film-noir picture but man, it was a perfect exclamation point to cap off this intense and emotional ride.

I also want to point out that the musical bits in the film were awesome. That brief moment where Belafonte fears for the life of his wife and children and loses it to the music in the club was emotional and narrative perfection.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Touch of EvilThe Third ManWhite HeatHe Walked by NightThe Killing, Naked City and Night and the City.

Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: City On Fire! (1979)

Also known as: La Cité en feu (Canadian French title)
Release Date: May 24th, 1979 (Germany)
Directed by: Alvin Rakoff
Written by: Jack Hill, Dave Lewis, Celine La Freniere
Music by: Matthew McCauley, William McCauley
Cast: Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, James Franciscus, Ava Gardner, Henry Fonda

Astral Bellevue Pathé, Astral Films, Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), AVCO Embassy Pictures, 106 Minutes

Review:

“All it takes is one man, could be anybody… your neighbor, my neighbor… one man to destroy a city.” – Chief Albert Risley

How can a movie that boasts the talents of Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner and Leslie Nielsen be absolutely abominable? Well, if it’s an all-star ensemble thrown into a ’70s “made for TV” disaster movie, there’s your answer.

These things were rarely good. Actually, I don’t think they were ever good. Now some disaster movies are fun but those were the big Hollywood blockbusters for the big screen and only the first few at the beginning of the 1970s obsession with urban apocalypse pictures.

This one sees some disgruntled worker deliberately cause a fire at an oil refinery, which is apparently enough to burn down an entire city. Well, if you can suspend disbelief and watch this thing unfold like an unfunny version of Curb Your Enthusiasm where the city is Larry and the fire is spread by everything going wrong that could possibly go wrong at every turn.

City On Fire! is a compilation of brain farts captured on celluloid. There isn’t much about it that is worth anyone’s time and it has no redeeming factors. It’s boring, dumb and you’ll only feel sadness for the talented actors wedged into this flaming shit show.

But hey, it was lampooned on the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when it was still on local TV in Minnesota. They never resurrected this once the show went national on Comedy Central or the Sci-Fi Channel and that’s probably for the best. It was alright to sit through once and didn’t need to be dusted off and replayed like a few other films from that inaugural season.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: other terrible “made for TV” disaster movies.

Film Review: The Delta Force (1986)

Release Date: February 14th, 1986
Directed by: Menahem Golan
Written by: James Bruner, Menahem Golan
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin, Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, Kim Delaney, Robert Forster, Lainie Kazan, George Kennedy, Hanna Schygulla, Susan Strasberg, Bo Svenson, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, Steve James

Golan-Globus Productions, Cannon Films, 129 Minutes

Review:

This may be my favorite Chuck Norris film of all-time but I need to watch Missing In Action again, because it’s been awhile.

This film is like two films in one. There is the first part which has to do with Lebanese terrorists hijacking a plane. I’m not really sure why because I don’t know if it was even explained but they spend the first half of the movie flying, landing, flying, taking Jewish hostages, flying some more.

The second half of the film deals with Chuck Norris’ team of bad ass Delta Force MFers trying to rescue some hostages from the terrorist compound. Chuck is joined by veteran Lee Marvin and American Ninja sidekick Steve James.

Asses get kicked, stuff gets exploded, everything gets shot and Norris rides a bad ass motorcycle that shoots missiles! What’s not to love?

The cinematography was average, the acting was below average, the plot wasn’t important but did you read the previous paragraph?

The Delta Force is a fun movie. Especially for those of us with nuts full of testosterone.

Film Review: Lolita (1962)

Release Date: June 13th, 1962
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Vladimir Nabokov, Stanley Kubrick, James Harris
Based on: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Music by: Nelson Riddle, Bob Harris
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

Seven Arts, AA Productions, Anya Pictures, Transworld Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 152 Minutes

Review:

The poster for this film asks, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer: with lots of meddling by overreaching censors with nothing better to do than to dictate what should and should not been shown in the art form that is film. This was also before the modern film ratings system came into play.

Because of the do-gooders stranglehold over such things, Stanley Kubrick said that he probably wouldn’t have made the film had he known how difficult and severe the censorship limitations were going to be. He also later commented that, “because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did.”

As far as the movie goes, it is hampered by the issues above. It is still a better than decent motion picture, though. While it isn’t close to Kubrick’s best, it is a great lead-in to what was to come from the director, as almost all of his films after this are either masterpieces or pretty damn close. Had the censors backed off, Lolita may also have been able to be considered in that regard.

From a stylistic standpoint, this is less artsy than the later Kubrick pictures but it is still immaculately shot with pristine camera work, editing and beautiful cinematography. The attention to detail and the depth and character of the sets and the world around the actors felt lived in and authentic. The black and white presentation worked quite poetically as a contrast to the colorful story and very layered and subtle undertones that added a great depth to the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

The highlight of the film for me was seeing Peter Sellers play a myriad of characters. Granted, he was the same guy but he played roles within the film. This was sort of a precursor to what he would do in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, where he played three separate characters. That film is one of Kubrick’s best and it is the pinnacle of Sellers’ acting career, in my opinion.

Sue Lyon was also quite impressive, especially for her age at the time of filming. She had real acting chops and held her own alongside the talented cast around her.

While this film explores some uncomfortable territory, in that it follows an older professor who is infatuated with a teen girl, it doesn’t get as dark as I feel it maybe should have. I’ve never read the book but from what I’ve read about the book, it goes places that the film wasn’t able to due to the censors. I really would have loved to see what Stanley Kubrick could have done with the film had he been left alone.

Lolita still turned out to be a good film in spite of its production issues and the fact that the director’s vision was compromised by Hollywood politics. Unfortunately, the bulk of the story is presented in ways that may be too vague for audiences to fully grasp. It isn’t hard to figure out what’s going on but the motivations of the characters, while known, are still kind of mysterious and not fully explored.