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5 Stars Movies

It’s a hard world for little things, in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is a perennial source of fascination for cinéastes, both as a singular oddity in Hollywood history but also as a masterpiece in the truest sense: not only is it the best of what it is, it’s the only.

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”

The Gospel of Matthew

It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this one… impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?

Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.

Charles Laughton The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter

The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).

The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.

Shelly Winters in The Night of the Hunter
Like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, even The Night of the Hunter’s crime scenes are beautiful

This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.

The Night of the Hunter
The visual design of The Night of the Hunter drew from German Expressionism

In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.

In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.

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0 Stars Movies

Frank Miller’s The Spirit is the Insane and Unhinged Product of a Uniquely Obsessed Auteur Mind

At last, finally another entry to The Dork Report’s hallowed pantheon of zero-star unholy cinema atrocities. Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space), it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind. The only difference is, Miller was handed a great deal more money and resources than Wood ever managed to wrangle.

Not that he didn’t have to work for it. Miller is one of the best-known (and most ripped-off) rock stars to graduate from the sweatshop that is the comic book industry. He has written and/or illustrated some of the best-selling and most influential series of comics’ modern age, including Wolverine, Daredevil, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin, Sin City, and 300. Much of this work has long been ruthlessly pillaged for raw material for Hollywood’s leveraging of comic book intellectual properties. The unmatched one-two punch of his 1980s Batman graphic novels Year One (with David Mazzucchelli) and The Dark Knight, together with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, became the basis for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). That first major comics-to-movie blockbuster not only borrowed Miller’s particular interpretation of the character (itself a highly distilled version of its surprisingly dark history), but also his overall visual style (going to far as to visually quote individual panels).

Gabriel Macht in The Spirit
“I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.”

Over a decade later, Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003) unfortunately fumbled Miller’s most famous original character, the Greek ninja assassin Elektra. But Miller was soon to cease being merely someone from whom Hollywood stole paid homage. In 2005, Miller jumped media barriers to co-direct a feature film adaptation of his original graphic novel Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. The two crafted an exactingly faithful recreation of the book, essentially treating the original comics as storyboards. Miller’s profile only rose as Zack Snyder pulled a similar stunt with Miller’s 1998 graphic novel 300, producing an even bigger (and slightly controversial) smash hit.

Credit to Miller for absorbing countless lessons from the seasoned indie maverick Rodriguez, enough to helm an entire feature on his own. The Spirit’s visuals are often extraordinarily beautiful, exploiting the thin barrier between animation and live action blurred ever since the largely green-screened Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004). Like Sin City, nearly every shot is highly processed to effect a stylized evocation of noir literature and movies.

But together with Miller’s signature brand of stark, chiaroscuro images and purple, pulpy noir dialogue, it doesn’t look or sound anything like the real ostensible real source material, Will Eisner’s original Spirit comics. The legendary Eisner is considered the inventor of the graphic novel. The DVD edition includes a must-see bonus feature: “Miller on Miller,” in which Miller talks of him as a teacher, and took many of his aphorisms as lessons, including the essential sensuality of inking (which Miller took rather literally). Eisner (and others such as Neal Adams) may have inspired Miller in the first place, but Miller’s version of The Spirit in Chucks and cape-like trenchcoat more closely resembles his own creations, especially Dwight from Sin City (Clive Owen in the film) or Daredevil as he appears in the 1990 graphic novel Elektra Lives Again.

This Dork Reporter read Miller’s comics as a kid, and certainly never expected the guy would one day be a bankable force in Hollywood. Looking backwards, it’s plain he hasn’t changed much. His obsessions and preoccupations are now only amplified and enhanced: his modern comics (and now movies) are mostly comprised of homoerotic bone-crunching acrobatic fights (if the entirety of 300 isn’t proof enough, might I refer you to Daredevil’s battle with the naked, big-dicked Bullseye in Elektra Lives Again), voluptuous femmes fatale (no skinny waifs for him), and pulp fiction and film noir-inspired odes to his beloved New York City. Also on the DVD, Miller expounds on all his favorite talking points, from his detailed knowledge of comics history, his love for New York City, and his hatred of censorship (he’s famously prone to castigate the comics industry for weakly censoring itself instead of fighting back against – or even ignoring – Congressional pressure in the 1950s).

Scarlett Johansson in The Spirit
“I’ve known some pretty strange women in my time but this one, she’s got the final word on strange.”

I’m not familiar with Eisner’s original Spirit comics, which appeared as inserts in 1940s Sunday newspapers. But from what I understand, Miller took a great deal of liberties beyond jettisoning Eisner’s colorful visual style in favor of his own Sin City look. Miller adds a metaphysical aspect missing in the original, making The Spirit and his nemesis The Octopus both indestructible and quick-healing (perhaps inspired by the character Wolverine, to which Miller had a hand in popularizing in the early 1980s). The presence of Samuel L. Jackson can’t help but recollect M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, an infinitely more subtle examination of the superhero archetype.

The action is set in an unnamed fantasy urban landscape like that of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995): filthy, surrounded by water, soaked by constant precipitation and fog, and in perpetual night until the sun finally rises at the end. Miller’s script conspicuously avoids mentioning the year, but the automobiles and fashions are clearly of the 1940s while the characters employ the cell phones and internet of the 2000s. This is Miller’s home.

The Spirit sports an unusually eclectic cast, with the unknown Gabriel Macht in the eponymous role with much better-known stars Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in supporting roles. The performances range from the distracted (Sarah Paulson as a good girl besotted with The Spirit) to the borderline lunatic (hi, Sam!). One can hardly blame the actors, for surely they were at the mercy of the screenplay and Miller’s rookie coaching. Stana Katic is entertaining as Morgenstern, a gosh-golly gee-whiz rookie cop that goose-steps from scene to scene like a sexy robot. ScarJo rocks hornrimmed glasses like no bad girl before her, but it’s just plain uncomfortable to see her in Nazi fetishwear and jackboots.

The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as “just plain damn weird,” a phrase apropos of the movie itself. It’s oddly slapstick, and often outright silly. Unexpectedly, it’s much less violent, or rather, gory, than 300 or Sin City. It’s also slightly more playful in narrative terms; the Spirit’s noirish voiceover often brazenly breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.

And finally, some trivia gleaned from the credits:

  • This comic geek thought I recognized a contribution by frequent collaborator Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled and Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot), and I was proved correct in the end credits.
  • The end credits themselves, designed by Miller, are stunning.
  • Miller is also credited for the storyboards, which must be something to see.
  • Miller cameos as a decapitiated cop, the head of whom The Octopus wields as a weapon. He also appears in Sin City, Daredevil and RoboCop 2, for which he wrote the screenplay.
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4 Stars Movies

The Dude burns one on the way over in The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski

In 1998, when all the world wanted from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen was another Fargo, they got The Big Lebowski instead. The Coens recently repeated this trick by following up another masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, with the happy-go-lucky Burn After Reading. This blog wonders if this compulsion is by design or if the Coens just can’t help themselves.

Viewed with some puzzlement upon release, The Big Lebowski is now the subject of pop art, annual conventions, and action figures. The farcical film noir is ultimately an extended “wrong man accused” pastiche in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, but The Coen Brothers infuse it with their trademark anarchic spirit and populate it with characters with low (or otherwise chemically impaired) I.Q.

The Big Lebowski
We don’t roll on Shabbos

The film’s 10th anniversary was recently celebrated in a Rolling Stone feature article, The Decade of the Dude by Andy Greene. John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott reveal a wealth of anecdotes and all seem genuinely delighted at the film’s cult status. Goodman, however, alludes to having had a kind of falling out with the Coens after Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The article also states that The Coen Brothers decline to discuss the The Big Lebowski at all anymore, for unspecified reasons. However, the DVD edition screened by this blog includes the original 1998 contemporary electronic press kit including an interview with the Coen Brothers in which they gamely discuss the production (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as writer, but in truth they have always shared the duties equally). The DVD also provides a peek at cinematographer Roger Deakins’ spectacular fantasy sequences and unique bowling footage actualized with a motorized camera capable of running up to 20 M.P.H.

Jeff Bridges reveals the extent of his actorly craft in preparing for each scene: he would simply ask The Coens, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?” Most often, the answer was yes, so he would rub his eyes to approximate the degree of redness appropriate, and proceed. The Dude copes with the trials and tribulations of life with the motto “The Dude abides,” but the circumstances in which he finds himself during this misadventure leave him less in a state of zen than one of paranoia. No doubt a lifetime of pot abuse has harshed his mellow somewhat.

The Big Lebowski
You don’t &$%# with the Jesus!

Despite having only barely more than a cameo appearance, John Turturro nearly steals the movie with the unforgettable character Jesus Quintana (that’s “Jesus” with a hard “J”), a sexual predator and cocksure bowler. The Coens speak about wanting to write a Latino character for Turturro, but where did the rest of his outrageous characterization come from? Did they just wind Turturro up and let him go? Other notable cameos include David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Potter) as a giggling associate of Maude (Moore), and musicians Aimee Mann and Flea as hapless nihilists.