(On Cable TV, December 2017) When watching older movies, it’s natural to assume certain parameters. Aside from the occasional noir movie, themselves neutered by the restrictions of the Hays Code, most films from the fifties are presumed to be fairly soft—neutered in themes, gentle in approach, straightforward in presentation. The Night of the Hunter has endured because it is most definitely not those things. Anchored by a strong menacing performance from Robert Mitchum (in a role that clearly anticipates his turn in Cape Fear), the film soon disposes of its central female character, then turns its attention to mortal child endangerment. What’s more, director Charles Laughton applies nightmarish expressionist style to its hard-core thriller plot for a surreal experience that has as much to do with sheer style as substance. A popular and critical dud upon release, The Night of the Hunter has grown in stature since then for obvious reasons: it’s a film ahead of its time, precise in its impact and still quite impressive to take in.
(On TV, September 2017) I caught this film mostly as a prelude to watching the 1991 remake, but I’m actually impressed at how well this Kennedy-era thriller has held up. Even (slightly) pulling its punches regarding violence and sexual assault, Cape Fear does manage to be gripping and nightmarish. Much of this effectiveness has to be credited to Robert Mitchum: Gregory Peck is fine as the stalwart hero of the story, but it’s Mitchum’s incredibly dangerous ex-convict character that makes the movie work so well even fifty-five years later. The houseboat assault sequence alone, a lengthy one-shot that begins with an egg being smashed on the film’s female lead, is still off-putting even today. It certainly helps that Cape Fear has a strong Hitchcock influence (he storyboarded it; J. Lee Thompson stepped in after Hitchcock quit the project but kept most of the style intact), and remains distinctive despite imitators and a lasting influence. I was favourably impressed by the film, and actually prefer it to its slick 1991 remake in many ways.