For this week’s post, I decided to pull some stuff off my DVD shelf, and found a couple of good candidates. They’re both ostensibly horror movies, but not classic monster movies, or blood and guts horror films. This week’s films are:
Fritz Lang – M (1931)
Charles Laughton – The Night of the Hunter (1955)
I had seen M some time ago, but The Night of the Hunter has been on my shelf for years, and I’ve never taken the time for it. But that has changed, and I’m excited to write about them.
Let’s get into it.
A murderer of children haunts the streets. The city is in an uproar, accusing anyone who so much looks at a child, and the police are at a loss. In response, the police begin performing extra raids on the known criminals in town. The criminals feel that they are being unfairly targeted, and concoct a plan to capture the murderer themselves, using resources the police don’t have. But what will they do with him if they catch him?
The film stars Peter Lorre as Beckert, the child murderer, and is directed by Fritz Lang, who might well be the greatest German director of all time, and is certainly in the conversation for one of the greatest directors of any nationality. He had earlier directed Metropolis, which would secure his place among the greats, and M is an amazing follow up. Not to mention his work on the Dr. Mabuse films, and his later work in America.
It’s also worth mentioning the time this film was made in. In 1931, the Nazi’s hadn’t taken over Germany yet, but they would soon after. Their ideas had already begun to permeate the culture there. It’s important to note that while Fritz Lang films, particularly Metropolis, was a favorite of Hitler, Lang was not a Nazi himself, and had to flee Germany as the situation there deteriorated. In fact, this film was banned once the Nazis took ultimate power in Germany. Lang never reached the filmmaking heights in America that he did in Germany, but he was always a solid director in his American days. I haven’t covered Lang before, but I’m sure he’ll turn up again.
This film is an early example of sound cinema, and it exists in a strange no man’s land where films were either planned as silent, and scenes with sound were added after the film was completed, or directors were struggling with when and how to use sound effectively. The story goes on this film that sound was prohibitively expensive, so Lang only shot certain portions with sound. The rest is completely silent. When I first heard this, I assumed it was a mistake, or that perhaps my disc had an error. But after doing some research, I discovered it was intentional. It adds a bizarre quality to the film, where we go from a world filled with sound to one that is completely silent. There’s also no score in the film. I don’t know if this would have had live music playing like silent films would have had, but I assume not.
Lorre is amazing at the killer. We actually don’t see his face for the first 20-30 minutes of the film. The first time we see him, he’s just a shadow, and a tune he’s whistling, “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. We see a little girl leaving school, and she bounces a ball, walking up to a poster on the wall, which warns people of the child murderer on the loose, listing the multiple children he’s already killed and asking for information. The child bounces the ball against the poster, and we hear the whistle of this haunting tune. Then the shadow appears over the poster. The way the shot is set up, we instinctively know that this is the murderer.
There are a few more scenes setting up ways Beckert will be caught later in the film, but the film mostly focuses on the mother waiting for her child to come home, starting to realize that something isn’t right. This is a great example of suspense. We as the audience already know what has happened. There’s no doubt. But this mother doesn’t know. We have to watch her slowly come to the realization that her daughter is missing.
Then the film gets into it’s weakest aspect, the police work. The film spends way too long showing us the police working. We understand after about a minute or two that the police don’t have any idea who the killer is, but this scene seems to go on for almost 10 minutes. The interesting part of the film is the way the criminals decide to take matters into their own hands, we only need to know two things about the police: 1) They can’t figure out who the killer is, and 2) They step up enforcement on common criminals as a response. Those two points are what moves the plot forward, but Lang spends a huge amount of time here on the police effort. There is some interest here later when the stories of the criminal effort and the police effort begin to mirror each other, but in this section, a lot of it could be cut out without damaging the film.
About the only interesting thing that happens in this early part of the film is a handwriting expert who describes Beckert’s personality based off a letter he sent to the newspaper, and it’s intercut with scenes of Beckert staring at himself in the mirror, making faces in a decidedly disturbing way.
But the film really gets moving once the police raids start and the criminals get involved. From here, the film is a train on the tracks, as events are set in motion. We also get a look at how criminals operate, with each different type of criminal belonging to a guild of sorts. They agree to catch the murderer themselves so that they will stop being the focus of police interest, and use the network of beggars as spies. We also see how organized the beggars are in this city, bringing their haul back to a central location for sorting, and even being assigned locations for begging, ensuring that they cover the entire city.
We also see some of the inner workings of Beckert’s mind. He is out walking the streets (while the police search his apartment secretly), and he seems perfectly normal, until he sees the reflection of a little girl near him. We see the compulsion take him over. Lorre plays this conflict really brilliantly. He seems to not want to do this, but is somehow compelled by his broken brain. He begins following the girl, again whistling the tune, which seems to be part of the compulsion, but is foiled when she reaches her mother. He goes to a nearby cafe to get a drink, trying to calm his nerves. But he loses his struggle, continues to look for a child to attack. As he walks by a beggar whistling his tune, the blind man recognizes it from the day that the previous murder happened, and connects that it must be the same man. He alerts a nearby compatriot, who sees Beckert talking to a little girl. He begins the chase.
In the most iconic moment of the film, the man chasing him realizes he needs to mark the man to make him easier to find. He draws an “M” in chalk on his hand, and walks by slapping Beckert on the back. This leaves the imprint of the letter on his jacket where he can’t see, and makes it easier to spot. The beggars follow him easily, while they alert their leaders.
This sets up a great section of the film where the police and criminals are basically working towards the same purpose in different ways. The police have found evidence in Beckert’s apartment that has convinced them he is the murderer. They wait patiently in his apartment for him to come home so they can arrest him. But they don’t know that Beckert is cornered in an office building, having been trapped there by the pursuing criminals. It is after hours, and he’s locked in. The criminals break in, tying up the guards, and blocking the exits, to ensure he can’t get away.
The criminals tear the office building apart looking for Beckert, and finally find him, but not before one of the guards manages to trigger the alarm. The criminals have to get out. They take Beckert, but one of their own is left behind. He is captured by the police, and eventually tells them everything he knows.
In the final scenes, the criminals bring Beckert to their hideout, and instead of just killing him, they actually put him on trial. There’s a panel of judges, and he even has a lawyer. Beckert professes his insanity, but the criminal court is unmoved. The people in the audience are beginning to form a mob mentality, while the lawyer screams about his unethical it is to kill a man not responsible for his actions. As the crowd begins to rush Beckert to tear him apart, the police arrive, tipped off by the man left behind.
I want to talk about this courtroom scene a bit, because I find it particularly disturbing how bloodthirsty the crowd is. I don’t know exactly what Lang is trying to say here. It’s possible he’s saying that this is the way courts should actually work, but I don’t buy that. I think this scene is a direct response to the mob mentality he is seeing in his country from the rise of the Nazi party. I think it would have been easy for him to look around and see how kindness and mercy were being eroded from society. If anything, Lang’s position is that of the lawyer, loudly proclaiming that even though guilty, Beckert cannot be held responsible, and should not be killed for his crimes.
The crowd, who refuses to listen, represents the world around Lang, who just wants blood. And considering the crimes we know Beckert has committed, it’s not that hard to identify with them.
But in the end, Beckert is sentenced, and we see one of the mother’s crying, lamenting that they must watch their children more closely.
This is a stunning film. For a film from 1931, the cinematography is spectacular. Lang had a way of putting us in the moment, and building the suspense that rivals the greatest suspense filmmakers of all time. Lorre is amazing as well. You can really see the struggle his character is having, and how horrified he is by his own actions. When the chase starts, we can feel the desperation, as he tries again and again to get out of the office building, almost making it before finally getting caught. He is a truly miserable, pathetic individual.
My only complaint with the film is too much time spent establishing the police early on. Without that time spent there, the film is much tighter, and we get to the more thrilling aspect of the film faster, without sacrificing important parts of the story.
Let’s look at our next film.
The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
A man steals $10,000 to help his family, but the police are on his tail. He hides the money telling his young son John that he can never tell anyone where it is. In prison, he lets slip to another prisoner what has happened. Ben is put to death for murders he committed in the robbery, and the other prisoner, Harry a sophisticated conman and religious fanatic, travels to Ben’s hometown, taking on the guise of a preacher to infiltrate Ben’s home and find the money. Will the young John be able to defend his family?
The film stars Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, and is directed by Charles Laughton. Laughton was well known as an actor, but this film shows his talents at directing. His filmography only lists two films as director. This one was apparently a financial flop, and he wasn’t offered the chance to make another. And we lost what could have been one of the most interesting directors of the era.
The film centers on Mitchum’s Harry, a man who presents as a preacher, but has his own ideas about what constitutes religion. When we first meet him, he’s driving down the road, talking to god directly. Telling him how grateful he is for delivering him all the old widows with money. He can’t even remember how many he’s scammed. He’s arrested soon after, it turns out he stole the car he’s driving. He’s sentenced to 30 days in prison, where he meets Ben, and plots out his next scam.
Back at home, Willa, Ben’s wife is being subject to heavy pressure from the people around her to get remarried immediately after her husband has been put to death. The pressure comes from a woman named Icey Spoon who works at a bakery with her, which I assume is her mother, but I’m not totally sure. She resists, but when Harry arrives, presenting himself as someone who knew Ben, because he worked at the prison, the pressure from Icey amps up another notch. She practically drags her to the altar.
The young daughter of Ben, Pearl is also easily taken in by Harry’s faux devoutness. Willa is resistant at first, but Harry tells her that the money Ben stole was thrown into the river. She believes him and marries him, feeling like she will make a fresh start.
But John sees right through it, mistrusting him immediately. And when alone, Harry reveals himself to John, asking him where the money is directly, and warning him when he and his mother get married, he will be in charge.
The nightmare starts for Willa on the wedding night. She prepares to have sex with Harry for the first time, but he refuses, telling her that he only married her to help her raise her children, even shaming her for offering him sex. Rather than realize how strange this is, she says a prayer of her own, asking God for help being the best woman she can for him.
The film appears to be fairly misogynistic, portraying the women as gullible fools, believing anything Harry says as long as he dresses it up in faux devoutness, or love for the children. Even Pearl never really learns the truth, but she’s so young it’s hard to blame her. It’s easier to blame the old woman, Icey, who goes out of her way to support Harry, never looking any deeper than the words he says.
As Willa continues in the marriage, we see her devolve into some kind of religious fervor, changing the story of her husband from a loving father who mad a bad choice for his family, blaming herself for his crimes, telling a crowd at a church that she forced him to steal the money to buy her more clothes and makeup. It’s nonsensical, but in some ways we can understand, as she’s just had a traumatic event in her life.
But one evening, he catches Harry grilling Pearl for the location of the money, threatening her life. She stays loyal to him even then, but Harry decides it’s too much of a risk, killing her in bed, and then driving her body away with the car, telling the story that she ran off. Again, Icey buys everything.
This story is incredibly frustrating, because if anyone had looked just a bit deeper at any point, everything would have been fine. Harry is not a master criminal, he’s incredibly sloppy and brutal. An old man known as Uncle Bertie to John even finds the body of Willa, sunk into the clear water of the lake, clearly visible from the surface. But he doesn’t alert the police right away. The shots of the body are haunting, they look more like a painting than a cinematic shot.
In fact, many of the shots are similarly beautiful. They have an unreality to them that reminds me a lot of The Ballad of Narayama, which we’ve covered here before. The hyper realistic style suits the film well, and makes the children feel all the more in danger.
John doesn’t realize that his mother is dead, but does realize that without her nearby, Harry will have no problem getting rid of them. After a failed attempt, they manage to get away and float down river on a small row boat, getting away from Harry. But of course, it isn’t over. Harry leaves town to chase them, leaving a note behind to try to cover his tracks.
The children float down the river, begging for food as they go, until they land on a bank and are accosted by Ms. Cooper, a woman who runs some kind of boarding house for children. She’s currently taking care of three girls and takes in John and Pearl. She is also a religious woman, but not a fanatic, and uses her religion as a source of strength and guidance, rather than control, drawing a sharp contrast between herself and Harry.
But Harry isn’t through, tracking down the children even here, this time by seducing the oldest girl under Ms. Cooper’s care, Ruby, who is starved for attention. But when Harry arrives at Ms. Cooper’s to claim the children, she is completely immune to his normal tactics. She sees through him immediately. When John arrives and says that Harry is not his father, something completely unique in the story happens, Ms. Cooper believes him. She runs into the house and returns with a shotgun.
This sets into motion the final events of the film, where Harry waits outside overnight, while Ms. Cooper waits on the porch with her shotgun. He breaks into the house, and is shot, running off to the barn, where the police arrive and charge him with the murder of Willa. John suddenly realizes that he will never see his mother again, and tries desperately to give Harry the money, but it’s too late. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
But the film wraps up with Harry in prison, and the children safe and happy with Ms. Cooper.
I think this is a really interesting film, and I’m really interested as to why it was a failure. I have a feeling it might be because of the religious content. Portraying religious people as gullible and easily swayed, and clergy as manipulative and sinister could have definitely rubbed people of the era the wrong way. But it’s aged very well. Mitchum is terrifying as Harry, and we can even feel sympathy for Willa, even though her actions caused her children incredible hardship.
The film is a commentary on a patriarchal society, and how that can be abused by people acting in bad faith. Harry knows all the noises to make to convince people he’s a devout preacher, and who in the community he has to manipulate to get what he wants.
It’s really a shame Laughton never got to direct more films. Who knows what he might have produced?
The Double Feature
These were interesting films to watch together. They both work as suspense films, and in their era, I’m sure they felt like horror films. They also both involve children in prominent roles. Night of the Hunter stars them, and they are somewhat in the background, but everything is about them in M. Both films also have these underlying stories about the state of society and major problems that are bubbling under the surface. In Hunter, it’s this idea that men should be obeyed, and that anyone who believes in god has moral authority. In M, we see how easily society can be turned into vengeful monsters, and how quickly people can discard their values in the face of this vengeance.
Getting close to the end of the semester, and I’m not far enough along on my major projects. I’ve got two major writing projects to complete, and one I have a first draft, the other I only have an outline. So I have some work cut out for me in the next couple weeks. But I’m confident I can do it. I also got a major opportunity for the fall, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet. I’ll bring it up when it gets closer.
So what about next week? It took me awhile to select them this week, but I finally decided. We’re going to look at gangster films, both old and new. Next week’s films are:
William A. Wellman – The Public Enemy (1931)
Martin Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990)
I’m shocked to discover this is the first Scorsese film I’ve covered on the blog. But he’ll be here next week, when we get to compare one of the earlier gangster films with one of the best.
See you then.