Tag Archives: charles laughton

“Lord, I am tired!”

This week’s pick for Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience is a movie that’s very near and dear to my heart: Charles Laughton’s sole film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, and it just gets better and better. It’s the story of psychotic “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and his pursuit of two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who know the whereabouts of $10,000 stolen by their father. (“It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!”) It’s a horror movie, film noir, document of Americana, religious allegory, morality tale, folktale, fairy tale, and more. Shot with expressionist flair by Stanley Cortez, it’s also one of the best and most beautiful films of any kind.

By all rights, The Night of the Hunter deserves a comprehensive, in-depth review on this site – and, with any luck, I’ll write it in time. For now, however, I’ll just explain my favorite images from it, and then abide. And my “best shot” is…

Keep in mind, The Night of the Hunter is so visually perfect that even its “worst shot” would probably outdo most whole films. It has countless images with similarly striking compositions and measured use of light and shadow. But something about this one really catches my eye and hangs onto it. Maybe it’s how Laughton and Cortez, working on a studio set, made a sunrise that looked more beautiful, more powerful, and more real than any real sunrise. Maybe it’s the tiny silhouette of Powell, riding his stolen horse along the horizon, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Seeing him like that makes him feel like a feature of the landscape, an omnipresent boogeyman, a mythical figure of the worst kind of evil.

Maybe it’s the way the barn door creates a frame within a frame, turning the outside world into its own little movie, which is then split into light and dark halves. (You start to see how carefully they thought out every single shot of this film.) Or maybe it’s how John is sitting upright, protecting his sister from the monster she accepts as her father. This shot is a self-contained narrative, a melodrama of the home (the barn) threatened by looming external forces. And I’m still so enthralled by that sunset. But I can’t content myself to one image. Here’s another of my favorites.

This image proves to me that Laughton and Cortez had a profound understanding of film noir, and an even more profound insight into the cultural currents at work in postwar America. Ruby (Gloria Castillo), the eldest of the foundlings cared for by Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish), is going downtown under the pretext of sewing lessons. Obviously, no sewing lessons are involved. Just look at the crowd of men who fill out the shot, or the words around them: “DRUGS,” “Restaurant,” “Magazines.” Look at the lights about the magazine rack, or the brick facade behind it. This is a picture of temptation at work: the temptations of neon lights, worldliness, and all pleasures money can buy (whether that refers to a soda at the drugstore, or something more).

This shot reminds me of the strip show witnessed by Powell at the beginning of the movie, since they’re both so emblematic of everything the modern city has to offer – everything that Powell and his nemesis Cooper are morally opposed to. Film noir is all about those offers and temptations. And like The Night of the Hunter, film noir (as a set of hundreds of disparate films) doesn’t take a unified attitude toward them. Sometimes it indulges and embraces; sometimes it rejects them. Maybe you could consider The Night of the Hunter as a moral skeleton key to the whole genre. A couple more notes: after rewatching this movie, I see the “Mama Sunshine” household in Palindromes in a totally new light; also, I’m dying to write about its treatment of gender and sexuality. Expect that soon. Now I’ll close with a couple of visual tricks-and-treats.

At least in these shots, Laughton and Cortez are working right out of the Fritz Lang playbook. And fantastically so. Finally, this shot rang a tubular bell for me. Look familiar?

I think Regan MacNeil would agree: it’s a hard world for little things.

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The Many Faces of Bela Lugosi

I love Bela Lugosi. He was a towering, menacing icon of horror, yet so tragically human in every performance and his dark personal life. He had the sadness of poverty and addiction inscribed on his face as he played ghouls and mad scientists; he was the missing link between the twin horrors of B-movies and the real world. And now several generations, myself included, have grown up watching his revelatory performances broadcast late at night on local TV. So even though he may have been relegated to Hollywood’s underworld for most of his career, he’s been a cult figure since shortly after his death. Bela has meant so much to so many, from goth rockers to Tim Burton to every stripe of horror fan, and it makes me wonder: who is Bela, what is he?

So, in keeping with our new desire to make more visually-oriented posts, I want to look at some of Bela Lugosi’s faces. He may not have had the superhuman versatility of Lon Chaney, Sr., but Bela nonetheless darted from role to role – often several within a single year – playing villains, antiheroes, monsters, and confused old men. Bela’s screen persona is prismatic, reflecting different meanings and attitudes depending on how you examine it. Let’s see what a few screen shots can tell us about this fascinating, shadowy man.

The Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Moreau: “What is the law?” Sayer of the law: “Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?” Who could’ve been more appropriate as the leader of the humanimals in Paramount’s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau? Despite spending 25 years as a villain in horror movies, Bela was rarely covered in makeup; instead he relied on his intensely expressive face and thick accent. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a notable exception.) But as one of the bad doctor’s half-human creations, he gave a powerful voice to their suffering and rebellion. He only appears briefly in the film, yet his performance totally overwhelms the majority of his human co-stars; only Charles Laughton makes anywhere near the same impression. Bela’s presence, as a star in a non-star role, adds worlds to the film’s horror, and shows an artist of fear at work.

The Devil Bat (1940)

I’ve seen this movie an unreasonable amount of times, especially considering that it’s an ultra-cheap, nonsensical quickie from the Poverty Row studio PRC. Yet for all its intrinsic absurdity, The Devil Bat (one of many bat-themed titles made up to that point) is bizarrely compelling. The main – OK, sole point of interest is Bela’s performance as a perfume researcher who’s cheated by his employers. As revenge, naturally, he sets his flock of trained killer bats on them. The film overflows with hilarious badness, right down to a newspaper headline that messes up the name of the reporter protagonist, but at its heart, it’s all about Bela. He retains his gravitas in the most embarrassing films, somehow elevating his scenes beyond the low-budget monotony surrounding them. Even as a mass murderer, he’s a beacon of wounded humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

The Wolf Man (1941)

A latecomer to the Universal horror cycle, The Wolf Man is most often remembered for Jack Pierce’s makeup, Curt Siodmak’s mythology-defining screenplay, and Maria Ouspenskaya’s performance as the gypsy sage Maleva. But Bela also appears for one scene, playing Maleva’s cursed son, who mauls a woman before being struck down by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s silver cane. With sorrow in his eyes, he’s fittingly the bearer of Old World magic and fatalism who infects the once-happy Chaney. His brief presence here is strange, considering that he was by then a hard-working horror mainstay (he’d literally been in dozens of movies and serials since Dracula). But somehow with only a couple minutes of screen time, he makes the existence of werewolves plausible, and with Ouspenskaya’s help, provides the emotional impetus for the film’s central conflict. Bela could make bad movies entertaining, and good movies even better.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Infamously, Bela’s last years of acting were spent largely at the side of reputed “worst director of all time” Edward D. Wood, Jr. Bride of the Monster is the second and least-known of their collaborations, and offers up just as many nuggets of incompetence as the others. In the midst of this silly, overwrought cinematic maelstrom is, as usual, Bela’s mad scientist with an axe to grind and a flair for soliloquies. Lugosi started out doing Shakespeare in pre-WWI Budapest, and in his own twisted way, he was the Olivier of monster movies, with his own Z-grade Macbeth and Richard III. In Bride, he’s the cherry on top of Wood’s hysterically nonsensical Cold War concoction. He bosses around the behemoth Lobo (Tor Johnson); he waxes poetic about building a “race of atomic supermen”; and he faces his own nuclear demise. Yet at the film’s core is a sad, elderly man giving it one more go. Maybe this was Lugosi’s King Lear.

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What would bigots do if they knew…?

So, I haven’t written in a while (sadly), but that’s what this is for. Yesterday, while researching the great Belgian surrealist René Magritte, I happened to find this fascinating blog called Sexuality & Love in the Arts, topics to which Pussy Goes Grrr is certainly no stranger. And I ended up reading their article on Alan Turing, the brilliant British cryptographer, mathematician, and pioneering computer scientist who was legally persecuted (after helping win WWII) until he committed suicide. Why, you may ask, would a great genius like Turing be chemically castrated, tormented, and hounded? Because of what the authorities called “gross indecency”… he was a homosexual.

Long-suffering genius Alan Turing

So, reading about Gordon Brown’s recent apology for Turing’s rather shabby treatment by the government, I was reminded of an idea I had the other day. Because, okay, homophobia is alive and well and living in America, as evidenced by this video of Carrie Prejean, the ditzy beauty queen whose po’ widdle ego was demolished by contest judge Perez Hilton after she said “You know what, in my country, in my family, I think I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there…” and some other similarly halting statements. And now apparently she’s a horribly persecuted, God-loving inspiration to us all who’ll get her rewards in heaven!! at least according to her.

And so, between that and reading about Turing, I thought about this: lots & lots of people (hell, even the majority of California voters) don’t want gay people marrying each other. And they’d also prefer if they’d take their homosexual selves, get back in the closet, and let the children go on thinking heterosexual is the only kind of desire. (Honestly, people act like attraction to the same sex is automatically graphically sexual, while attraction to the opposite sex is, by default, clean and pure. ‘Cause men never lust after women, right? And so exposing kids to the notion of gayness is sucking away their innocence. But that’s another blog.) So it got me to thinking, people are OK with letting queer artists provide them with great entertainment and profundity, but if they have to know that Rock Hudson’s sleeping with men on his off-days, they’d rather he was prosecuted for it? Because let’s face it: queerness and art have gone together pretty well for, oh, all of human history. And I wanted to take a look at some examples. Hence, this is the “what would gay-hating bigots do if they knew…” list.

First, a few caveats: I’m going by a pretty loose definition of queer here. If I’ve been witness to some form of evidence that a historical figure was queer, I’ll include them for argument’s sake, but by no means is this academically rigorous. It’s a thought experiment. Also, there’s going to be a lot more gay men on this list than lesbians because, well, men are better-represented historically in everything than women. When you narrow it down to women attracted to other women, the representation gets even tinier. That said, here’s my list! What would gay-hating bigots do if they knew a gay person was crucial in creating:

Western philosophy, Hellenistic civilization, the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, My Ántonia, Leaves of Grass, A Shropshire Lad, The Importance of Being Earnest, much of literary modernism (Stein, Woolf, and H.D. for starters), Remembrance of Things Past, Valentino, The Battleship Potemkin, Bride of Frankenstein, Blithe Spirit, Gaslight, computers (going liberally with Turing), Jean Cocteau himself, Night of the Hunter, Screaming Popes, Beat poetry, pop art and the phrase “15 minutes of fame,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, The Leopard, American absurdist theater, if…, Harold and Maude, Cabaret, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and then starting in the ’70s-’80s, too many advancements in the arts and elsewhere to name as the LGBT community became more legal, visible, and able to express themselves – I’ll just toss out Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as one particularly sublime example.

Now, I grant there are a lot of flaws with this list and its reasoning, and I admit that most of the examples come from film, because queer filmmakers are one of my great areas of interest. But I was mainly trying to make a point: if intolerant people think they can dismiss all gay men & women as being icky, unnatural, somehow poisonous, undeserving of rights or public exposure, or evil/impure on some basic level, maybe they should look around their culture and realize that often what they consider wholesome, unobjectionable art (like one case in point I discovered tonight) is actually made by (gasp!) the very “perverts” and “deviants” they’re dead-set against. I think homophobia requires much of the same solipsistic blocking out of the real world as racism – “No, no, no, I’m not listening; you will not be a counterexample to my passed-down belief that all gays/blacks/etc. are unworthy degenerates…”

Gustave Courbet's The Sleepers, 1866

They’re often similarly ignorant of the fact that homoeroticism turns up all over place – for an obvious example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray – because, oh, it’s a pretty common, basic element of human sexuality and hell, I’d even say a universal part of the human experience (I mean, honestly, who hasn’t had at least a fleeting, vaguely homoerotic thought or two in their whole life?). These people act like by constructing thick moral walls we can erase all the “evil” in the world and create a cuddly, gay-free cultural womb. The fact is, queerness has factored somehow into some of the greatest artistic accomplishments in history, in one form or another. And you know what? If Charles Laughton, John Gielgud, Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde, and all the rest are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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Judging bodies and profiling actors

Finally, finally, I am writing another blog. So what thoughts have I had on my mind lately? My skin itches. Itches are funny things. If you have an itch, you have to scratch. Human skin itches and it’s a little, unpleasant sensation, sometimes intense and sometimes barely noticeable, that basically screams to your brain, “ITCH ME!” It wants y0u to drag your fingernails across it, or something sharp. An itch might be a kind of pain, or it might be a feeling below pain. It doesn’t quite hurt; it just requires action. Living in a human body is a strange experience overall. I’ve always felt as much. Everything reports back to your brain, but it took a long time for us to figure that out; we don’t experience our lives through our brains, but through our senses. I guess we perceive our selves as being localized around our eyeballs. Sight is our primary sense. So where does a blind person perceive themselves as being localized? I like looking into how the lives of the disabled are different from the lives of us – are we really the “abled”? The blind, the deaf, the mute, those with fewer limbs… it’s so fascinating to imagine seeing the world from a different body. I think a lot of movies manage that, giving us a brush with difference. And so, I was just thinking of a few either Oscar-nominated or well-recognized voiceless performances: Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948); Marlee Matlin (who’s actually deaf) in Children of a Lesser God (1986); Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993). Wikipedia reminds me: Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962) and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Which in turn reminds me – I was looking the other day for footage from Deliverance (1919), a movie produced by Helen Keller and based on her life. I didn’t find anything from that movie sadly, and I doubt I will in the near future, but I did find this great video:

I’ve also read about – and would love to see – Werner Herzog’s early documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which profiles a deaf-blind woman. My point is that film can be a powerful way to experiencing difference. Especially when you’re led through the magic of narrative to identify with a character, and thereby take on their attributes and disabilities to yourself. You recognize your own weaknesses in the protagonist, and you can be led without realizing it to get a deeper understanding of difficulties you’ve never personally had. This connects to what I’ve said about horror movies, too; being led to identify with Frankenstein’s Monster leads you to simultaneously recognize him as being the Other, but since he’s the protagonist, you see in him everything rejected or hated about yourself. It’s an interesting kind of tension in spectatorship that I’d like to investigate further.

I’d like to segue into crystallizing an idea I’ve talked about with Ashley many times. It’s been said before, but I’m going to repeat it. Basically, it’s this: You do not have the right to judge whether someone’s body is good or bad. You never have the right to determine absolutely whether or not someone has a valid, acceptable body. Not you nor your friends nor society nor anyone at all. Because every single human body is just that: a body. (And when a body meet a body coming through the rye…) Some bodies are big, some are small. Some short and some are tall. Some are fat and some are thin; some… well, I can’t sustain a rhyme, but you see what I mean. Some have big noses, others have little noses. Some have light skin, others have dark skin, and others still have dark skin with light parts, or light skin with dark parts. Every culture, every era, and every group of people have their own idea of what constitutes beautiful. I guess when it comes to fashion magazines, beauty changes every other month. (As my father informed in euphemized terms, “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one.”) The point is that no single attribute of a human body is objectively bad. Some bodies are diseased. This is unfortunate, but they still have a body which must be respected as such; all bodies were created equal, because we are not a fucking thing but flesh and bone. (Blood, fibers, keratin, etc., you get the idea.) I think kids should be taught this from an early age. Fucking schoolkids reinforce shallowness and body negativity like every schoolkid before them by taunting for the same goddamn reasons – someone looks funny, or slightly unusual, or has some physical attribute than another kid deems worthy of mockery. I’m all for retaining valuable rites of passage and innocence in childhood, etc., whatever. What is the lesson of, “Ha, ha, you look vaguely different!”? That other people will hate you because of your appearance? FUCK THAT. My time’s running short, but this bullshit has always pissed me off. Shallowness is enforced in every aspect of our society. My point is a basic one, and it’s that my body is just as good as your body. Which is just as good as a model’s body. Which is just as good as the body is a 300 pound woman with one leg. Which is just as good as an athlete’s body. Which is just as good as a dwarf’s body. Which is just as good as mine. Because what the fuck does “good” mean in the end, anyway? An athlete’s body is more capable of running and jumping than mine; I grant this. A model’s body might be smaller than the overweight amputee; how is that a mark of being “better” in general? She might have a number of limbs closer to that which she was born with. But what does that mean? My point is that people who insult or mock those who look different are worthless fucking morons themselves, and it’s nothing against their bodies, but it does show that the minds occupying them are shallow and unable to accurately evaluate other people. I may go more into depth about this later, but that’s the general idea: there are no “good” bodies or “bad” bodies. You decide how good your own body is, and no one else has the right to determine that for you.

Finally, I’ve wanted to write about certain actors recently. And I think I’ll start by talking briefly about Charles Laughton. Laughton is – God, where to start? He was a great actor. Not really a “movie star,” even though he could do Shakespeare and act opposite Clark Gable and Maureen O’Hara, and he carried a number of movies by himself. His single directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, is one of the great films and in a class by itself, a unique, beautiful vision that captures ideas and images no other film has quite managed. When acting, Laughton’s roles varied from cowards and buffoons to great, bloated symbols of power and corruption. He’s magnificent in his last role playing Senator Seab Cooley in Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), in which he’s nominally the villain, but really an integral part of America’s two-party system, as the aged southern senator who sits over the rest of the Senate like a tiger batting a mouse around in its paws. I’ve noticed over and over – in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Paradine Case (1947), acting under Wilder and Hitchcock respectively – how Laughton can easily fit himself into any place in the justice system, acting like a chess piece in the machine of jurisprudence, fully aware of the mechanisms operating around him. When Laughton is in control of a situation, he can easily be scary; he was the original Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and you can really imagine him playing God! After all, he was doing it for half his career. Then there’s the matter of Laughton’s appearance.Charles Laughton

He has a fascinating, craggy, offbeat face. Like I said before: no movie-star glamor. He was an actor. He could be likeable, he could be a bastard. This also connects to my points earlier about people trying to put labels of attractiveness on others’ bodies. (Oddly enough.) You can’t do that with Charles Laughton. He was the affable hero of Jean Renoir’s American wartime allegory This Land Is Mine (1943), as well as his next movie, Jules Dassin’s early comedy The Canterville Ghost (1945). He was Rembrandt and King Henry VIII (I want to see both movies). He could be larger-than-life, or he could demonstrate that you didn’t need to be pretty to star in a movie. Also, very appropriately, he starred (again opposite Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda) in the post-Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Oh, and that’s right, he also embodied the extreme decadence of Christianity-oppressing Rome while playing an indulgent, hedonistic Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932). Sometimes he was excess and measured sadism incarnate; other times he was cuddly and lovable. Charles Laughton is just a great figure in film history, and I really think he fits well with the other ideas I’ve been discussing today. Look into his face. Sometimes maybe you’ll find the grim depths of absolute authority. Other times you’ll see the pain of being different. Another fun fact? Laughton was also homosexual, despite being married to his close friend Elsa Lanchester (aka the Bride of Frankenstein). It really just adds an additional level to what I’ve been discussing here. If you’ve never seen him, check out Hunchback or Witness for the Prosecution whenever they’re available. You will not be disappointed.

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