1955 // USA // Charles Laughton // October 12, 2010 // DVD - MGM (2000)
[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
Screening Charles Laughton's eccentric Southern gothic nightmare—remarkably, the first and only film he directed—has become something of an October tradition for me. I suppose it isn't exactly a horror film, but the struggle of wills between young John Harper and the "Reverend" Harry Powell is one of the great Good-versus-Evil cinematic matches of all time. (As far as I'm concerned, it's up there with Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West in terms of its mythic purity.) For that, and its potent aura of physical and spiritual menace, it always seems a good fit for the run-up to Halloween.
The influence of German expressionism on Laughton's style and Robert Mitchum's disturbing portrayal of the Reverend receive the lion's share of critical attention, but what was on my mind on this occasion was how ambiguous the film is in its stance towards children. The way that Laughton presents the story's sentimental moralizing seems authentic, and yet it always has a bit of sadness and uneasiness squirming underneath its phantasmagorical surface. The Reverend seems so ominous partly because the film paints John and Pearl as unblemished souls. John safeguards the secret of the money out of enduring loyalty to his Pa, not because he cares about the cache's value, and Pearl is so untainted by the world's ugliness she makes paper dolls out of the bills. However, Laughton's camera always seems a little apprehensive when it regards the children, as if they are strange and unknowable creatures whose purity intimidates as much as it beguiles. Adding to the dissonance is the fact that Sally Jane Bruce, who plays Pearl, is a damn creepy-looking little girl.
The film is unequivocally a creature of the Hays code era, what with the Reverend's sudden and strangely off-handed downfall, not to mention the entire character of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish, effortlessly endearing), the sort of saintly caregiver and protector who fits right into the film's fairy tale vision of Depression America. Still, when Rachel muses on the dual character of children—their simultaneous fragility and endurance—it doesn't feel like syrupy sentiment, but a melancholy statement of bewilderment. In fact, an aura of bewilderment characterizes the entire film: at the Reverend's unfathomable malevolence, at others' blindness to his evil designs, at the capricious cruelty of the world, and at the impenetrable nature of God's will.
Incidentally, after ten years on a no-frills MGM disc, the film is finally getting an overdue Criterion Collection treatment on DVD and Blu-ray next month.