Marty (Directed by Delbert Mann)
The Nominees: Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo
The Night of the Hunter (Directed by Charles Laughton)
My Nominees:The Man With the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger), Summertime (David Lean), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
Delbert Mann's adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty was kind of an enigma among the films that have won the Oscar for Best Picture. At a time when Hollywood was fighting the battle of the new medium of television by making films bigger, here was a movie that was written for television and had been a television production. Yet this story of a lonely butcher (Ernest Borgnine) who finds love after having resigned himself to a life of loneliness, was immensely popular, won seemingly every award in the book and even became the first American film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Alas, time has not been kind to Marty, and today the film has more or less passed out of common knowledge. My choice was just the opposite, a critical and commercial failure at the time, The Night of the Hunter today endures as an oddball classic. Those who appreciate film and the artistry of the medium, regard this as some kind of a masterpiece although trying to categorize it is not as easy as you might think.
Directed by Charles Laughton, his only directorial credit, The Night of the Hunter tells the story of a slick preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who goes to jail for 30 days and while there meets a man (Peter Graves) who is serving time for robbery and murder. The man admits that when he was on the run from the cops, he stopped by his home and hid $10,000 in stolen money somewhere on his property. The police never found it and the only two people who know the location of the loot are his two children, John and Pearl. Their father is executed and after Powell's month-long sentence, he is released and immediately goes to pay the kids a visit.
Working his way into their small community is not difficult. Powell is a smooth, slick, fast-talker - a man who presents himself as a man of God and talks a good sermon. The God-fearing townsfolk are taken in by his line, "Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?'' and so he does. The letters L-O-V-E tattooed on his right hand, and H-A-T-E tattooed on his left, to lay out the conflict between the two. The story isn't very deep but he's able to snooker these small town people with a good performance.
Visiting the children, he finds a weakness in the form of their widowed mother Willa (Shelley Winters) who has a history a sexual misbehavior. The good preacher has a way of tapping into her weakness and shames her into marrying him. She does not know, of course, that he is a bluebeard (a man who marries and murders wealthy women), and it isn't long before she is found dead behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of a lake. Now, Powell has full access to the children and the house and can easily look for the money at will. Threatening to cut John's throat in order to find out where the money is, he convinces a frightened Pearl to reveal that the money is hidden inside her doll.
The two kids outwit Powell and run out of the house and down river where they are improbably pursued by their step-father, who follows them on horseback. They find refuge in the house of the elder Rachel Cooper (beautifully played by Lillian Gish), who takes in orphaned or abandoned children. "I am a strong tree with branches for many birds," she says "I am good for something in this world and I know it too." She protects John and Pearl from Powell, whom she knows is dirty. She reminds John, who feels guilty because he is keeping secrets from a man of God, of Matthew 7:15, to "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves." Powell comes to the house to collect the children but Rachel chases him off her property and he threatens to return that night. He does and it leads to a showdown that ends with the police hauling him away for Willa's murder.
The Night of the Hunter is like no film I've ever seen. It has a visual palette that can best be described as abstract. The buildings don't look right, the settings look artificial, the personalities of the characters seem a little outsized. The dialogue is delivered with an old country twang, but it seems deliberately forced. The chase sequence in which the children move down river in the boat looks particularly artificial. The river looks as if it is indoors, the stars in the sky are outsized, and the moon looks a little too close to the earth. Even the details look artificial, there are close ups of frogs, owls and a strange spider web that looks as if it is made out of string. Then, of course, there is the scene in which we see Willa sitting dead behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of the lake. It is a macabre scene, she looks ethereal with her hair flowing like the seaweed.
These odd touches create a film that resembles a storybook nightmare. Laughton borrowed a great deal from silent films and especially from German Expressionism to give his scenes an odd angular shape. He set his lights in a peculiar manner such as the moment in which Powell returns to Rachel's house, and she sits on a well-lit porch bathed in darkness while the preacher sits in the background on a stump. Another moment that always strikes me is scene earlier in the middle of the night when John and Pearl are hiding in a hayloft and John hears the preacher singing. Then preacher comes into the frame silhouetted against the night sky, riding by on horseback.
Powell is one of the great villains of all time. This is not a typical performance by Robert Mitchum, who is usually quiet and unassuming. Here is his more boisterous, much larger than the characters we've seen before. He is able to sell his snake oil with a sleepy-eyed charm and a performance that convinces you that he's been preaching the word all his life. Under the guise of a humble preacher, he dispenses sermons that sound good but mean almost nothing. He is a profanity, a mad killer with a distaste for loose women, a bluebeard who marries them and murders them. He has moments we don't expect, like the moment when he chases the kids out of the basement, lurching forward with his arms extended like Frankenstein's monster. Or when the kids get away in a boat, and he roars like a wounded animal.
I could go on and on about The Night of the Hunter - it isn't like any film you've ever seen before or since. It is one of those films that is hard to define in almost every respect. It saddens me that the film's failure at the box office effectively ended Laughton's career as a director. I would love to have seen what he was fully capable of and what a contribution he could have made to his craft.