Peter Hoskin and Matthew d’Ancona count down the final 25 of The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films
(Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
Cinema sure does work in mysterious ways. Take Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s account of an Irish lad (played by Ryan O’Neal) who rises — and then falls — in 18th-century society. It’s a satire which lacks the vigour of Dr Strangelove (1964); a study of human nature which lacks the honesty of Paths of Glory (1957); and an adventure which lacks the expansiveness of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). What’s more, it meanders well beyond the bounds of empathy, and feels indulgent every single step of the way. Yet, despite it all, it remains the clearest — and most stunning — expression of Kubrick’s artistic vision.
The clue is in the camerawork: Kubrick slowly zooms out of the human drama to stage his own recreations of contemporary landscape paintings. It’s a beautiful effect (in a film which is among the most beautiful ever made), but utterly damning. As the image expands, people are reduced to mere specks; a bacterial culture on Kubrick’s Petri dish, to be studied dispassionately, if at all. Without the benefit of a microscope, Barry Lyndon could be anyone. And anyone could be Barry Lyndon.
At Barry Lyndon’s conclusion, our Everyman hero has been ejected from the courts of Europe, and is left sickly, poor and broken. He has less come full circle than been thrust to an even lower level than that at which he started. This is how Kubrick phrases the most dreadful — and most important — question of all, the question he has been priming for the entire film: what’s the point? PH
(Luis Buñuel, 1961)
The only feature film Buñuel made in his native Spain is also one of the most controversial movies of all time — condemned by the Vatican as ‘blasphemous’ and attacked by the Spanish government, which tried to have it withdrawn from the Cannes competition. No surprise when you reflect that this tale of a young novice and her loss of innocence was released almost half a century ago, and that its moral heart is a bleakly empty echo chamber in which one can hear only the surrealist’s cackle.
Instructed by her mother superior to visit her ailing uncle, Don Jaime, Viridiana (an astonishing performance by Silvia Pinal) is an uneasy guest at his country estate, troubled by his cackhanded efforts at seduction. Rebuffed, Don Jaime drugs her and considers raping her in her sleep. The episode leads to his suicide and the arrival at the estate of his son Jorge. Viridiana turns to good works, inviting local beggars and invalids to treat her new home as a sanctuary.
This being Buñuel, her fine plans backfire spectacularly. To the strains of Handel’s Messiah, the gang of grotesques invades the house and perform a riotous and libidinous masque over a makeshift banquet, culminating in a scornful recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ that bequeathed to cinema one of its most striking and shocking moments. In all this grand guignol, there is a relish for humanity in all its fragility and hideousness, and a bruising contempt for piety of all kinds. The original nun on the run ends her story a very different person, her eyes opened to realities she had chosen to ignore. Our eyes are opened, too: which is what makes Buñuel one of the truly great directors. Md’A
(Robert Bresson, 1959)
Why this Bresson? Why not — to name but one of the director’s other triumphs — Diary of a Country Priest? Because Pickpocket is both a great artefact of its era (a cinematic counterpart, say, to Camus’s L’Etranger) and a film that is echoed time and again in subsequent movies (in Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and, more recently, The Science of Sleep).
The plot is subsidiary: Michel (Martin LaSalle) leads the debased, joyless life of the compulsive pickpocket, resisting the different forms of redemption offered by his friend Jacques, a police inspector and his mother. Does it change things that Jeanne (Marika Green) visits him in prison at the end of the film? Probably not. Bresson’s Catholicism does not overrule the empty conviction at the movie’s heart: that when a man truly defines himself by dark actions, when his identity is actually shaped by sin, then his soul may indeed be beyond salvation.
Michel knows that his mother is dying but will not see her. Instead, he gives Jeanne money to pass on. Why does he avoid direct confrontation with mortality? Perhaps because he has no answer to the intolerable moral questions that such a moment would pose — and which (the viewer must finally accept) go utterly unanswered in this most unsettling of masterworks. Md’A
(John Cassavetes, 1959)
Above all, John Cassavetes’s Shadows is a state of mind, an attitude, a swagger. It plays up its be-bop credentials with a Charlie Mingus score and a strident final declaration: ‘The film you have just seen was an improvisation.’ But the tale of beat New Yorkers that precedes it is more deliberately crafted and self-conscious than it would have you believe. Its great success is in creating a feeling of raw spontaneity. Budget camerawork, naturalistic performances and an episodic structure all add up to a modern style which is truer, and closer, to the modern lives on screen than anything coming out of Hollywood. It pointed defiantly towards a new horizon in US cinema: away from the studios, stars and sets, but no less ambitious or colourful. And so the American independent film was born. PH
(Max Ophüls, 1953)
A huge influence on Truffaut and his nouvelle vague cohort, Max Ophüls was also, in his many explorations of passionate love, a link with the dramatic universe of Stendhal. In Madame de…, a love triangle that is at first sustained by the organised hypocrisy of fin de siècle high society falters, and then crashes, fatally, to the earth.
The countess referred to only as ‘Louise’ (has any actor better captured privileged wretchedness than Danielle Darrieux?) sells her earrings to pay off a debt, and no less so than the connections between people in La Ronde, the fate of the jewellery gives shape to the plot. Her affair with Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica) is initially tolerated by her (equally unfaithful) husband, André (Charles Boyer) — and yet nothing is as desolate in the film as André’s efforts to rationalise the empty pragmatism of their marriage and their social milieu.
‘The camera exists to create a new art,’ said Ophüls, ‘to show what can’t be seen elsewhere, neither in theatre nor in life.’ The tracking shots, especially in the scenes where Louise and Donati dance, are breathtaking. But so too is the way the director pares down all the opulence and visual grandeur, stage by stage, allowing the doomed passion to run its terrible course, until we are left only with a lonely stillness. Md’A
The Red Shoes
(Michael Powell + Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Powell and Pressburger’s most enigmatic film mines incredibly rich territory: the boundary between fantasy and reality, where life imitates art, and art imitates life. The reality, in this case, is a ballet troupe. And the fantasy is their production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, in which a girl puts on a enchanted pair of red slippers that won’t let her stop dancing. Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) plays the lead, and she so dedicates herself to the role that her life starts to mirror Andersen’s plot. What follows are some of the most graceful and exuberant dance sequences ever seen on screen.
The ending of the film doesn’t come as a surprise, prefigured as it is in the Andersen tale: the red shoes simply drive Page to her death. But the predictability doesn’t make it any less essential. Only when she becomes the first true martyr of the ballet does Powell and Pressburger’s new morality for the postwar years become clear: art above all else — the only thing worth dying for. PH
(John Boorman, 1967)
Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. The most memorable shot from John Boorman’s psychedelic noir Point Blank sees its protagonist, Walker (Lee Marvin), striding down a grey corridor towards camera, his heels tapping on the polished floor beneath them: click-clack. Somehow it tells you everything you need to know about the character: he walks, purposeful, relentless and unswerving. And it tells you, too, everything you need to know about the film itself: bold, hard-edged and dominated by the sheer physicality of Marvin. His Walker is a guy you don’t much care for, but you can’t take your eyes off him for even a second.
But where is he walking to? For all Marvin’s directness as he kills his way through a criminal syndicate in search of $93,000, we can never quite be sure. Boorman throws in enough flashbacks, jump-cuts and narrative leaps to muddy the issue. And it all comes to an oblique, ambiguous head, as Walker quite literally fades into the shadows of Alcatraz Island rather than claiming his prize. The other-worldliness of it all makes you wonder whether this is his limbo, his Hell. Doomed always to walk but never to arrive: a Sisyphean punishment for his crimes. PH
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
How to respond to a film which asks: is it OK to just watch? It sure seems creepy when James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair, uses his camera’s zoom lens to peer through the windows, and into the lives, of his neighbours. Gee, there’s that woman walking her dog. There’s a young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. And — what’s that? — a murder in the apartment opposite?
But don’t forget that we see whatever Stewart sees; we’re as much trapped in the frame as he is. If he’s a voyeur to be damned, then what about us moviegoers: are we just as bad? In truth, I doubt Hitchcock was launching an attack on his audience — but he certainly implicates us in the drama. And it helps make Rear Window his richest, most subversive and, yes, greatest work. PH
(Ridley Scott, 1982)
Make no mistake: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a triumph of substance over style. Every dystopian vision since may have been informed by its unforgettable look: vertiginous towers, shadowy streets and the sickly glow of a thousand neon lights. But none has come close to matching its essential profundity. For at the core of this tale about renegade androids — replicants — and the ‘blade runner’ tasked with hunting them down is an uncompromising meditation on mortality and all its associated side-issues: the afterlife, the nature of the creator, and the possibility of cheating death. It gives the film a tragic power which peaks when the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) comes to the end of his four-year lifespan. He sits down in the rain, and utters three simple words that speak to a dread we all share, humans and replicants alike: ‘Time to die.’ PH
(Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
Yasujiro Ozu is one of cinema’s subtlest practitioners. In his defining statement, Tokyo Story, the camera remains motionless as it takes in the quiet drama of family life. The interest lies not in the story but in the unspoken interactions between one relative and the next: a child pays little attention to the grandparents he has just met; a daughter neglects to speak to her mother; and so on. Ozu’s low-key style enables us to look at all this objectively, until a cumulative effect kicks in. We start to recognise more and more of ourselves in the faces on screen — our own hopes, disappointments, failings and foibles — and the emotional effect is near overwhelming. Quite simply, this is living, breathing cinema. PH
The Scarlet Empress
(Josef von Sternberg, 1934)
In many respects, this history of Catherine the Great’s rise to power is a grand oddity. Unlike perhaps any other cinematic masterpiece, it threatens constantly to be overwhelmed by its own flaws. The lead performances are horribly stilted; the main narrative is rushed and disjointed; and the whole thing feels like it was torn from the silent era and forced to incorporate utterly needless dialogue. But somehow von Sternberg’s brash, arrogant style drags you through it, and rewards you with some of the most indelible images in all cinema. His camera captures the full potential of light and dark, as it moves across candlelit statues and carvings, before resting — lustfully — on the porcelain features of Marlene Dietrich’s Catherine. In the end, it comes down to one single delirious point: that nothing else matters but her parted lips and her wide, wide eyes. And it’s hard to disagree. PH
(Orson Welles, 1941)
Lazily placed at the top or in second position of most movie lists, Citizen Kane is hard to watch dispassionately now. So let us accord it its proper place in the honour roll of cinema as one of the best films of all time, rather than the unchallenged top dog.
It is still almost beyond belief that a 26-year-old should produce a film of such power and innovative zest. But perhaps, like an athlete or a mathematician, this was simply the age at which the prodigy Welles reached his creative peak. The film’s theme — the rise and fall of a monomaniacal tycoon — was not a new one, having been explored in the Sturges-scripted The Power and the Glory (1933), a movie often regarded as the ur-text for Kane. But Welles, as usual, went further than anyone, daring to take his inspiration from the life of the mighty press baron William Randolph Hearst.
With his cinematographer Gregg Toland, the director and star dared much else besides, experimenting with deep focus and low-angle shots that allowed the ceiling to be seen. Even now, the movie is visually amazing to behold. Add to that the music of Bernard Herrmann (who was to pull off the same trick for Scorsese in Taxi Driver 35 years later) and you have a film that beguiles on every level.
What is the deepest secret of Xanadu? What is the true meaning of Kane’s final utterance — ‘Rosebud’? We think we are told the answer in the film’s closing scene, only to realise as we leave the movie house that cinema’s most famous ‘reveal’ poses more questions than it solves. Md’A
La grande illusion
(Jean Renoir, 1937)
La grande illusion is the most gently provocative, and quietly revolutionary, film yet made. On the surface, it is a delicate comedy of manners — or a ‘story of human relationships,’ as Renoir put it — set in a series of first world war prison camps. Underneath that, the film makes strident claims about the emerging order and politics of Europe.
The crucial scene comes when the German prison camp commandant Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) reluctantly shoots the captured French aristocrat Capitaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). As the latter dies, the former, close to tears, observes: ‘For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me it’s a good way out.’ The point seems to be that the old rules of the game — to borrow the title of another Renoir masterpiece — no longer apply. That grim lesson would resonate around Europe only two years later. PH
The Passion of Joan of Arc
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc recognises the simple power, and communicative potential, of the human face. Dreyer’s camera switches between close-ups of his Joan (Maria Falconetti) and of her captors, and the contrast couldn’t be more striking. She: weeping but resolute. They: leering and grotesque. Through her features we come to know her, and recognise her strength in solitude. It makes her martyrdom all the more moving, as that face finally disappears behind a cloud of smoke. PH
The Godfather Part I and Part II
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 + 1974)
So embedded in our culture have Coppola’s movies become that hundreds of lines from their respective screenplays are used routinely by politicians and the media without need of further explanation. They have inspired video games, spin-off novels and a whole genre of film and television drama in which members of the Mafia are portrayed as sympathetic characters rather than murderous thieves: no Godfather, no Sopranos. Those seeking the seedy truth about gangsters should instead watch Matteo Garrone’s stunning Gomorrah (2008).
The genius of the first two Godfather movies (more of which endures in the third, baroque instalment than most critics allow) lies in the convergence of a unique aesthetic, pitch-perfect casting and a seductive internal morality. Who would have thought a mob movie could be lit in the chiaroscuro style of an Old Master — a technique masterminded by Coppola’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in the face of much scepticism? Or that this bold visual style would find its exact musical counterpoint in the lush, operatic soundtrack by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola?
There is little new to say about the perfection of Brando as Vito Corleone, Al Pacino as the son he hoped would find a different destiny, Robert Duvall as the German-Irish consigliere, Tom Hagen, and James Caan as the hotheaded Sonny. But what transforms a compelling family saga — for that is what the Godfathers are — into two of the greatest of all films is the brilliance with which Coppola seals off his universe; so that, while we are watching, the Corleone clan’s morality seems fair and reasonable: the protection by all means necessary of that which we love in a cruel and corrupt world.
The rules could not be clearer. Don’t ever take sides against the family. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Mr Corleone never asks a second favour. This is the business we are in. ‘Do you renounce Satan?’ Michael is asked during the christening of his nephew as, elsewhere, the family’s enemies are gunned down one by one.
Well: do you? Md’A
(Howard Hawks, 1959)
You can leave your realism and your soul-searching at the door: Rio Bravo is the Hollywood western at its most delirious and ecstatic. This is a world — or, rather, a studio backlot — where the bad guys all wear black. Where the good guys enjoy an occasional singalong. Where John Wayne can get with the much younger (and, let’s face it, much prettier) Angie Dickinson. And where alcoholism means little more than a few days’ worth of stubble, and curable by a nice hot bath. So much for the Wild Wild West.
This isn’t to downplay Hawks’s masterpiece, but rather to highlight its charm. As with so many of his films — from Bringing Up Baby (1938), through to Red River (1948) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — the joy comes from the interplay between the lead actors; in this case, between Wayne and Dickinson, along with Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan. They bicker, they joke, they support and they love one another. They are cinema’s First Family, and their chemistry isn’t just irresistible, it’s enveloping. You rewatch Rio Bravo, time after time, because you want to take part, because it feels as natural as a conversation with friends. Yep, you may even join in with the songs. PH
(Jean Vigo, 1934)
Jean and Juliette (Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo) have just got married. They trudge out of a small church in rural France, a procession of relatives and well-wishers in tow, and neither talk nor smile as they walk along streets, past huts and through fields. The mood is funereal. Eventually they come to Jean’s barge, where Juliette — still wearing her wedding dress — clutches on to a boom and swings aboard, to begin life with her new husband.
So goes the wonderfully eccentric opening to Jean Vigo’s wonderfully eccentric L’atalante. What follows is a graceful extended metaphor, a journey down-river which stands as testament to Shakespeare’s immortal maxim: ‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’ She leaves him, drawn by the glitz and hubbub of Paris. And he leaves her, too stubborn and resentful to do otherwise. But they are soon reunited.
To call it a happy ending does Vigo a disservice. Like the rest of L’atalante, it is at once poetic, prosaic, funny, seductive, honest and somehow ominous. It is a moment of — what else? — true love. PH
The Seventh Seal
(Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Let’s be frank: what chance does a Swedish film about death and religion, set in the Middle Ages, have of compelling our interest? And not only that: one that has been lampooned and parodied to great effect for half a century (Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and — our personal favourite — Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey).
It is a tribute to the genius of Bergman and the bleak yet profoundly human majesty of The Seventh Seal that it remains so entrancing. Unlike Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, it has few pretensions to naturalism and plays fast and loose with the historical facts of the crusades and the plague. Max von Sydow, as the returning knight, Antonius Block, accompanied by his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), is a man afflicted by the deepest metaphysical doubts, symbolically played out in his game of chess with Death.
Though constantly tempted to surrender his faith, Block cannot quite do so, preferring to wrestle with his doubts in a series of encounters and challenges. In the end, Death must prevail. But the final scene shows that the knight’s life has not, after all, been without meaning. Md’A
The Magnificent Ambersons
(Orson Welles, 1942)
To understand Orson Welles’s sophomore effort — a tale of changin’ times, of horses giving way to automobiles, in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis — you need a bit of background information. The Ambersons we have today isn’t the Ambersons that Welles wanted us to see. The studio hacks thought his original 131-minute vision was too long and weighty for public consumption, so they chopped it down to 88 minutes in the director’s absence, inserted a few offensively mediocre shots, and discarded the leftovers. It could well be the most depraved act of sabotage in film history. As Welles lamented: ‘It was a much better picture than Kane — if they’d just left it as it was.’
Even so, there’s enough in the butchered cut to show that Welles had matured, both artistically and emotionally, since Citizen Kane (1941). I have in mind the dash and daring of the Christmas ball scene, which surpasses the fluidity of even Max Ophüls’s work; the light social humour of Joseph Cotten trying to start a car in the snow; and the whimsicality of Welles’s own narration. There’s even the occasional grim pleasure to be found in the studio-imposed clumsiness: the tonal shift towards the end of Ambersons comes with such scant warning or exposition that it feels like a jolt to the heart.
As much as I crave to see the full-length version of The Magnificent Ambersons, the one we’ve got is perhaps the ultimate testament to Welles’s genius. It makes a defiant, if unintentional, statement: ‘Look, I can make a masterpiece — despite it all.’ PH
(John Ford, 1956)
There’s no escaping the elemental force at the heart of The Searchers: John Wayne’s loner hero, Ethan Edwards. He is one of the most flawed, obsessive, terrifying and downright compelling characters in American film. An unapologetic racist who shoots out the eyes of dead Indians, so that their spirits will ‘wander forever between the winds’, and who blasts away at a herd of buffalo, saying, ‘At least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter.’ His quest to rescue his niece Debbie from an Indian tribe will put him in direct confrontation with his own hatred. And it will give us something to ultimately judge him by. For judge Edwards we must: we certainly can’t just tolerate him.
You feel that Ford doesn’t just tolerate Edwards either. The Searchers has a deliberate, methodical calm about it which rebels against the angry figure at its core. It takes its time over countless beautiful landscape shots, and revels in moments of levity and poignancy. In the end, it even partially redeems its lead: reunited with his niece, he lifts her up and says adoringly, ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’ All that remains is that famous final shot of Wayne, alone and framed by a doorway. It is nothing short of perfection. PH
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
The most obvious audacity of Antonioni’s masterpiece is that its central plot development — the disappearance of Anna (Lea Massari) — is never resolved. Rather, the film shifts dramatically from an account of a yacht trip off the coast of Sicily to a haunting mystery story.
Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is joined by her friend Claudia (an exceptional performance by Monica Vitti) on a trail that seems to lead nowhere. They begin their own affair, which is quickly corrupted by Sandro’s dalliance with yet another woman. The movie ends with Sandro staring blankly, weeping at the emptiness of his existence.
‘A new man is being born…’ Antonioni explained after the movie had been booed at its premiere in Cannes. ‘This new man immediately finds himself burdened with a heavy baggage of emotional traits which cannot exactly be called old and outmoded but, rather, unsuited and inadequate.’ The price that these spoilt, lost characters pay for their freedoms is appallingly high. No wonder this most disturbing of films has often seen as a premonition of the dark side of the tumultuous decade whose beginning it marked. Md’A
(Michael Powell + Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
Right from the off, the omens aren’t good for Deborah Kerr and her sister nuns, sent to establish a dispensary and school in a distant Himalayan community. The palace they are to convert was once a harem-cum-brothel, putting their Christian sensibilities in immediate conflict with the Ghosts of Orgies Past. And it perches precariously aside a plummeting cliff-face: a magnificent abyss, waiting to swallow them up.
Inevitably, they fall. One by one the nuns sink into lust, paranoia, despair and psychosis, as the environment at first rejects them and then violates them. It’s a deliriously profane message: they are at the mercy not of their own God, but of whatever supernatural forces reside in the mountaintops and in Jack Cardiff’s ecstatic Technicolor cinematography. For their part, Powell and Pressburger keep pushing, pushing, pushing this dark narrative until the skies turn blood red, shadows fill the frame, and the nuns come to the edge of their own personal apocalypse.
In the end, they descend from the mountain, defeated and — one assumes — scarred by it all. And we recall the simple lesson uttered earlier in the film: ‘I think there are only two ways of living in this place… ignore it or give yourself up to it.’ These nuns did neither, instead choosing limbo. PH
(F.W. Murnau, 1928)
The subtitle to Sunrise informs us that it’s A Song of Two Humans — and how magnificently that song is sung. Murnau uses every trick available to him to embellish this fable about the estrangement, and eventual reconciliation, of a man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor). The camera whirls, images are superimposed on top of one another, sets burst with detail. But nothing is superfluous: every careful shot expresses something crucial, something wondrous, about the inner desires and motivations of the characters. It both demands and repays close attention.
I’ve always thought that a public-spirited art gallery would do well to screen Sunrise on loop, at one or two frames a minute. It would be an easy sell: just call it ‘The Most Beautiful, Most Profound Slide-Show in the World’. PH
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Such a strong contender for the top slot and for so many reasons. Yes, we all know the famous lines (‘Charlie don’t surf’, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, ‘The horror… the horror’, ‘The crew were mostly kids. Rock’n’rollers with one foot in their grave’, ‘Buddha Time!’ — to name but a few) and the stunning and often visionary cinematic setpieces: the opening to the Doors’ ‘The End’, the attack on the village to the strains of Wagner, the Playboy Bunnies dancing for the troops, Willard’s first meeting with Kurtz in his malarial lair, and so on, and so on.
But this film is so much more, frighteningly so. Coppola’s claim that his movie ‘is Vietnam’ was not mere bombast — just watch Hearts of Darkness, his wife’s account of her husband’s descent into Kurtzian madness as he made the film. Never has a director so clearly succumbed to the ‘temptation to be God’ that afflicts the Green Beret colonel. Only Apocalypse Now would feature a lead actor (Martin Sheen) who suffered a heart attack during filming — and came back to complete shooting.
The film sprawls and snakes like the river that is its heart. And yet there is method in the madness: not only an unlikely retelling and updating of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, in the setting of the south-east Asian conflict, but a richness of literary reference that is appreciated only by those sufficiently addicted to use the freeze-frame button. How many American film directors, in a big budget movie, would deploy not only T.S. Eliot but show on screen Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, the book that inspired ‘The Waste Land’ — not to mention Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a nod to the pagan rituals with which Kurtz surrounds himself in his Hadean compound?
Most of all, the film has survived both the historical era it describes and the period of its creation to tell a series of dark truths about war and the darkness of man’s heart. Who can see the pictures from Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo and say that we were not warned? Md’A
The Night of the Hunter
(Charles Laughton, 1955)
Peter Hoskin and Matthew d’Ancona discuss The Spectator’s number one film, The Night of the Hunter
Md’A: So: The Night of the Hunter. What are we thinking, Pete? A black-and-white Fifties cinematic curiosity, directed by an actor who never directed again, which was received with pretty lukewarm reviews at the time? I mean: how exactly did that end up as The Spectator’s all-time favourite film?
PH: I actually think you’ve hit on most of the reasons there. Fifties Hollywood is an incredibly rich, even experimental, period in film history — just watch Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, The Searchers, Johnny Guitar, Track of the Cat or a hundred other films to be sure of that — but, even then, The Night of the Hunter stands out from the crowd: a ‘curiosity’ as you put it. It’s an oddly beguiling mix of noir thriller, fairytale and folk drama that I just don’t think any other film has ever matched, or even thought to try. That it was Charles Laughton’s first and only film as director just amplifies its allure and uniqueness. And that it was neglected by contemporary audiences and critics, while being more or less widely celebrated now, suggests how forward-looking it was.
Md’A: And he is using such simple material, such a simple story. It’s set in West
Virginia in the Thirties: Mitchum is the unnamed ‘Preacher’ — famous for the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tatooed on his fists — who preys on weak women. He learns in jail from Ben Harper (Peter Graves) that he has stashed the money from a robbery somewhere and — once Preacher is released and Ben is hanged — weds Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) in the hope of finding it. The plot hinges on his murder of Willa, pursuit of her children and final confrontation with the awesome Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, who emerges as the guardian angel figure and Preacher’s providential nemesis. So simple. And yet within that framework Laughton is pushing so many boundaries: grafting a German expressionist aesthetic on to D.W. Griffith’s American pastoral, mixing up the grammar of film noir with the morality of Perrault’s fairytales. Amazing ambition.
PH: Yep, there’s a lot crammed in there. So much, in fact, that The Night of the Hunter feels like a distillation of film history. It really is a cineaste’s delight. Of course, Laughton had been part of that history for decades, only in front of the cameras, working with some of the greatest directors and producers in the business. You do have to wonder how much he was informed by that cinematic upbringing when it came to directing his own film. I can’t help but see parallels with The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932): a Universal horror film in which Laughton plays a bumbling aristocrat, and which features a similar blend of fantasy, pitch-black humour and dread. The same may be said of other Laughton vehicles like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939) or Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932). He’d certainly come into contact with monsters before Preacher rode onto the scene.
If you wanted to stretch the point, you could even say that Mitchum and Gish brought their own cinematic baggage — Gish as the typical heroine of Griffith’s epics, and Mitchum as the defining face of film noir. To some extent, Laughton’s got them playing their own archetypes, which is just one reason why the performances are so strong and multi-layered.
Md’A: What about its influence? I think the magic realism of the film, especially the scenes on the river, were very important to all subsequent films that explored the boundary between dream and reality. I’m even thinking of a film like Taxi Driver, but also (more obviously) directors such as David Lynch, Almódovar, Lars von Trier and so on. As for Preacher, is there a scarier villain in all cinema? I like to think he could take on Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, De Niro in Cape Fear and Joe Pesci in Casino all at once! I think The Night of the Hunter is very much a beginning as well as an end in the history of film.
PH: All very true. Although I think its freshest, and possibly most influential, conceit is how it calls on the audience to do more than idly watch, how it asks us to invest in the cinematic illusion. Let me clarify. While it’s certainly a film for adults, so much of The Night of the Hunter is from a child’s eye view. We’ve mentioned the fairytale aspects, of course, and also that two of the main characters are children. I think Laughton is challenging us to look at his film with the wonder of youth: to fear Mitchum as the bogeyman, to love Lillian Gish as the kindly aunt, and to thereby feel the full resonance of this dark fairytale. Given the limp contemporary reaction to The Night of the Hunter, you’ve got to wonder whether Fifties audiences were quite ready for it.
Md’A: Truffaut said, I think, that The Night of the Hunter was a horror story seen through the eyes of children and that, for me, is its most audacious aspect. As you say, the boldness of this strategy probably passed most contemporary audiences by. But watch the scenes in The Shining seen specifically through the eyes of the psychic child and you know where their ultimate roots lie. In sum, I’m really thrilled we have chosen this particular film. For me, it encapsulates all that’s best in cinema. It’s an eccentric, provocative choice, for sure. But you’d expect nothing less from The Spectator. Wouldn’t you?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 4, 2009