Charles Laughton

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

(On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m clearly showing my age when I say that it’s weird to see a big-budget live-action version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when it’s so readily compared to the Disney version. I know—it’s an unfair comparison, especially to the original Victor Hugo novel or the 1923 silent film. But it’s not entirely without foundation: The 1939 version, after all, codified many of the elements that even the 1996 Disney version reappropriates for its own use. There are a few other interesting things as well: Charles Laughton is quite good as the titular hunchback, even in the grotesque makeup he has to wear for the entire film. Meanwhile, Maureen O’Hara is spectacular as Esmeralda. Then there is the lavishness of the production, which doesn’t skimp on the massive crowds and the expansive sets that its premise requires, revolving around Notre Dame Cathedral and the rest of Paris as it does. (It was, at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made by RKO studios.) There’s a little bit of weirdness in having the story interrupt itself to explain the power of the printing press, but that’s forgivable in its own way. This 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a big-budget spectacular in all senses of the word, and that quality does make it watchable even today.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

(On Cable TV, April 2019) As far as early-sound era movie adaptations of theatrical material go, there’s a lot to like in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. It combines the best aspects of films at the time (actors, setting) with the traditional strengths of theatre (strong sustained drama, good dialogue) for a result that has held up rather well. Norma Shearer is fine as the film’s heroine, inspired from real events, but it’s Charles Laughton who steals the show as a reprehensibly overprotective father. Coming in right at the edge between Pre-Code filmmaking and the constraints of the Production Code, the necessity of bending the film to the censorship adds a layer of mystery to the film’s final moments that would have been blunted by a more direct approach, as we must wonder if the villain has really said that what we think he meant. (Spoiler: he totally did—Laughton even boasted about “the gleam in my eye.”)  I can find plenty of faults with The Barretts of Wimpole Street (such as the lack of interest in the eight [!] other kids and its detour into romance-upon-romance) but I can’t really argue with the final results. Amusingly enough, the film may have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but its enduring claim to fame was being one of the films that inspired the famous HICKS NIX STIX FLIX Variety headline.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

(On Cable TV, June 2018) I haven’t watched that many movies starring Marlene Dietrich yet, but Witness for the Prosecution is the first when I really get what Dietrich was about—it certainly helps that it flashes back to a cabaret sequence. Looking spectacular in her mid-fifties, she feels actively dangerous as the titular witness willing to do what it takes to achieve what she wants. Not that she’s the sole highlight of the film—Charles Laughton is incredibly likable as a barrister taking on a difficult case and never quite certain of everyone’s motives. The script, adapted from an Agatha Christie short story, is nicely paced to introduce the characters before getting down to the business of thrills and unexpected plot twists. Witness for the Prosecution does amount to a satisfying film, perhaps too brightly lit as a court drama to be pure film noir but certainly willing to get its inspiration from the depths of human cruelty. If director Billy Wilder has made a bad movie, I haven’t yet seen it. 

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) For a mid-thirties production, Mutiny on the Bounty still manages to impress thanks to expansive filmmaking, a solid story and good character work. While historically dubious (read the Wikipedia entry for the latest thinking regarding the real-life incident, markedly more sympathetic to captain Blight, not to mention the sad aftermath of the mutiny), the story itself does have a certain narrative drive, and the way the film portrays the events manages to be impressive—the shot in which hundreds of Tahitians converge to the water to greet the English visitors is still remarkable today. The heart of the film remains between Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Blight—both actors hold their own. While creaky by modern standards, much of Mutiny on the Bounty can be watched effortlessly today … and that’s no small achievement for a film pushing eighty.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

(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.