Category: thriller

Love, Hate, Robert Mitchum and The Night of the Hunter – a movie classic

It’s probably more than likely that most cinema goers now, especially those who love the sinister psychological horror/thriller genre, may view this 1955 movie as no longer carrying the shock or disturbance that it once did on release, even though it’s loosely based on a true story about a man who presents himself as a Reverend and, in his mind and social behaviour, seems to believe this genuinely, preaching the word of God in small town middle America. But all the while he’s in fact on the look out for widows with money, so that he can steal it and kill them. And this view exists, despite the novel being a bestseller at the time and beyond its publication date of 1953; and despite the fact that it was written by a respected and talented American novelist, Davis Grubb, and the novel has since been reprinted in various editions, continues to remain in print and is definitely worth reading.

“Love beats hate every time.” (Subtext: “I’d LOVE  to strangle your hateful neck with my bare hands. Ohyeh, Praise Jesus.”) Please note: if you click on the image, you’ll be taken to the famous scene in the movie in which Mitchum’s character explains the fight between “love” and “hate”.
Novelist Davis Grubb, taken in 1985

Besides which — given this is, primarily a movie appreciation (but what’s a movie without a great script and often a novel to base itself upon?! — the film continues to be recognised as a Hollywood classic and The Library of Congress has deemed it important enough to merit preservation of the original film stock; no small achievement in itself).

But why is the film so great?  Because of the wonderful dialogue, co-scripted along with Laughton — via a number of rewrites and detailed instructions from him — by the famous American writer, James Agee (author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), who was also the screenwriter for The African Queen).  For just one example of the glorious, compelling writing and acting and sinister undertones of the movie, just click on the DVD cover on the right; it’ll take you to what is probably the most famous scene in the film (note of course, it’s a sound file, if you happen to watch it at work!).

Even more impressive is the way the film’s made: the photography, the scene set ups, the camera angles, the amazing inter-play of light and darkness – all these are terrific.

And, without a doubt, it has one of the two most compelling performances that Robert Mitchum ever gave on-screen (the other, to me, being, Cape Fear (1962) [Region 2 DVD]; click here for a Region 1 DVD, which also is a Collector’s Edition with special features).  At the start of the film, the Reverend Harry Powell is in jail and his cellmate is telling him about a stash of stolen money he has kept hidden away on his farm. And so the plot kicks off, as Mr Powell gets a twinkle in his eye and you know where he’ll be heading next. It’s no coincidence that his character is both sinister and charming, subtle yet bold, dark and light and, yes, full of love and hate, his favourite words to preach upon and that are tattooed on his knuckles, one word on each hand, using them in over the top thespian fashion in what you know is a many-times recited miniature morality play. Nor is it a coincidence but rather a lovely symbolism, obviously, that, like the black widow spider, his evil character kills widow women. Mitchum’s is a genuine tour de force performance.  (Shelley Winters is also in it, but her acting is at the time, while conveying a certain naivety of the character and charm, is nothing compared to how brilliant she became as an actress over the next 10 years and beyond, marked especially by her vivid realisation of a selfish, vindictive, cruel mother in A Patch of Blue (1965), which was the benchmark role for her against which many of her later acting was measured against.)

Besides which, it is astonishing to think it was directed by an actor without any earlier experience of directing a movie before: by that truly brilliant actor, Charles Laughton (FYI, that link takes you to the official excellent site for Laughton – it’s very comprehensive in terms of its resources, links, etc.).  When you consider it’s a cinema classic and that it was his first film, inevitably Citizen Kane by Orson Welles springs to mind for the same reasons.  And yet typically Kane is ranked as the best film of all time and appears often as No.1 of the top 100, and The Night of the Hunter doesn’t appear anywhereat all in that list just linked.

Charles Laughton: One of the best actors of his or any other generation. A master of the art and genius one-time director of The Night of the Hunter. We love you, Charles!

However, at least there’s compensation in knowing that Laughton remains justifiably appreciated as one of the best actors of all time.  (I believe you can see some of his superb performances/films on YouTube, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) (BTW, a far superior version than Brando’s in 1962), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).)

Laughton’s own intimacy with – and deep understanding of – acting and the cinema — of photography and lighting, especially— and his distinctive intelligence and sophistication – are all reflected through this film. It also remains a powerful, troubling one and, while not shocking to contemporary audiences in terms of portraying a killer/psychopath, it remains an accomplished, enthralling movie in its own right.  I commend it to all cinephiles.

Road Kill – A psycho thriller in The Hitcher movies tradition

Just when you thought it was safe to drive in nowheresville America ...You sh*it yourself because of a freakin psycho serial killer nut on your tail

This movie is an evolution of earlier films of this type, beginning with Spielberg’s first smash-hit, Duel (based on a script by the fabulously talented horror writer Richard Matheson, and starring Dennis Weaver in what is arguably his best role ever; utterly convincing as a mild-mannered travelling salesman who unintentionally angers the driver of a huge truck and for the course of the film, is on a hell-bound journey while ironically trying to escape this demon), as well as the classic first Hitcher film scripted by Eric Red, Hitcher (1986), which is a cracking whizz of a thriller, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and he also wrote The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2007), but sadly, even though it still has C. Thomas Howell (still looking good), this is far from scary and doesn’t merit comparing with the first.

In other words, adolescent innocents are stalked by a psychopath while driving on the highway. While this is a gripping movie — the tension, the acting, the dialogue all work — the one element that frustrates, overwhelmingly so, is the brother in this film, who brings on/invites all the trouble that later occurs.

For that reason, you’re continuously anger/p*issed off that the idiot older brother, has initiated the trouble because of his dumbass prankster behaviour. Having said that, it’s still a tightly plotted, high testosterone movie, with great performances by Steven Zahn — the idiot older brother/prankster — Paul Walker — convincing in his role, and has a certain charm on-screen that you can’t help but be drawn into — and the always gorgeous, multi-talentedly convincing Leelee Sobieski (and who, no matter how many years pass by, seems to keep her teenager looks; I think there’s a picture in an attic somewhere.  The psycho of the film is, appropriately, relentless and terrifying; like all psychos, bless em: nothing will satisfy him save death of those he stalks and, if necessary, himself. But he’s too clever by half.

The only really damning criticism of the film is that Steven Zahn/older brother is such an absolutely irritating frickin moron, So irritating, because you know he initiated the nightmare with his prank that he insists his younger brother should play, that the rest of the film remains on a level of tension entirely to do with the audience’s awareness that he‘s caused the problems in the first place. I just wish they’d found another way of getting chased and terrified by the psycho, because Zahn has a natural charm on-screen and it’s a shame to spend time during the movie thinking “turdbrain!” “MUPPET!”, and “why does his brother go along with this cosmic-sized a-hole?!”

But please do be reassured the movie is genuinely a fuel-driven, high-testosterone, relentless ride of tension and anxiety and the dramatic scenes, of which they are plenty, are played very well. (Interestingly, too, J. J. Abrams co-wrote this script; it must have been one of his early ones, but you can see already his understanding of dramatic plot developments and intense scenes; no wonder he’s since become one of the darlings of Hollywood – one thinks of his scripts for Mission Impossible 3 (Single Disc), Region 2, not viewable outside Europe  — this is the link for Region 1 DVD version, besides his originating Lost, the inexplicable worldwide smash hit series, which I did admittedly want to smash and hit often.)  Worth watching?  You betcha.  Just make sure you keep your seat belts on when you see it, because it’s one helluva ride.

Shooter, with Mark Wahlberg, or: Bloody hell – he can act (sometimes)

Yes, it is big (you should see my other one). Ohhh - the gun, right, right....

Not only is this a terrific action/thriller film, it’s one of the best – and most believable – conspiracy movies made in the 21st century. Surprised that Wahlberg could be in such a quality movie?  Well, not if you’ve seen him in some of his other polished performances, among them, The Perfect Storm (2000), Three Kings  (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997).

But here Wahlberg is centre stage and must carry this conspiracy movie about an apparent assassination attempt on the life of the American president). He does so with what appears to be effortless panache and focus.  It’s a powerful, compelling performance in which the character he plays, Bob Lee Swagger, is at the heart of a story about the abuse of American foreign policy/power.

Noam Chomsky: Not only is my mind the size of a frickin planet (which I must say is rather nice), but I'm charming and modest, too. Photo © John Soames

Based upon Stephen Hunter‘s Bob Lee Swagger series of thrillers, beginning with Point of Impact, the author himself acknowledges in one of the DVD’s fascinating bonus featurettes that his original inspiration for his novel was the Marine  Carlos Hathcock, a true-life, phenomenally accurate sniper.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this thriller, but my impression is that the intellectual, political viewpoint that underpins this comes from the brilliant Noam Chomsky, in his well-researched, evidence-based critiques and examples of American imperialism, such as in Hegemony or Survival : America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy; these viewpoints add substance to what otherwise may have been a lacklustre conspiracy thriller. Wahlberg’s performance is a marvel (there, I said it on record), and thankfully worlds away from his ridiculous role and his even more terrible muppet-like acting in the bottom-wiped-floating-tu*rd remake, Planet of The Apes(2001).This film is a genuine, legitimate and compelling interpretation of the use of illegitimate, unjustified force for the sake of ‘democracy’. It has the narrative drive you would expect of a thriller, combined with touching, sensitive moments, as exemplified by the role and relationships with, first, Kate Mara, the gorgeous actress’s endearing Wahlberg’s character’s saviour and subsequently love interest  is terrific; her acting conveying the hurt and pain of having lost her husband, Wahlberg’s sniper buddy in the film, while still behaving according to a set of beliefs that are honorably focused on an essential understanding of ethics. Her face displays an intelligence, sensitivity and complex anguish that arguably merited an Oscar in Best Supporting Actress role.  And there’s Michael Peña‘s compelling role as a junior FBI agent, who has the intelligence and wherewithal to distinguish facts from fiction (though Pena’s acting is somewhat cardboard-like, I’m afraid, his character is still interesting). It is dramatic, intelligent, well-written, -plotted, -thought through and thoughtful in its range of issues covered.  Amazing, eh? I confess I’ve watched it a few times (I know, I know – life’s too short and there are thousands of other things to read/see/do!) and — every time — I appreciate once again the quality of the sharp, fast dialogue, the acting, the plotting and the very satisfying conclusion. (It is, admittedly, very much a  Hollywood movie in the sense of Wahlberg’s glorified revenge.)  Shooter, then, is a bona fide US conspiracy action-thriller and is absolutely crammed with action, ideas and thrills.  Not only this, but the Special Features of the film give you a deeper insight into its background and inspiration for it.

I may be a Quaker hillbilly, but I'm gonna getcha. Golla, golla, golla!

I also found the stories about the real-life Gunnery Sargeant Carlos Hathcock to be truly fascinating in their own right and merit the price of the DVD alone, because Hathcock really did have the amazing skills Wahlberg demonstrates as the character Bob Lee Swagger, and he was a genuine, top-secret sniper for the US government — with, it seems, abilities in that role that were unprecedented. (Interestingly, on this last point, I was reminded of the 1941 movie, Sergeant York , as the named character — a Quaker pacifist who fights in World War 1, played wonderfully by Gary Cooper, and who is not only a soldier but also a truly brilliant marksman/sniper/shooter.)

If you fancy learning more about Hathcock, his story is told over two biographies, both of which are available now.  The first is Marine Sniper and the sequel is Silent Warrior. Click on the relevant image to find out more about each and/or to buy them.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery

This is an intelligent film that has all the elements you want in a thriller/conspiracy movie; yep, it’s the real deal: a movie that makes you think, feel and engage about geo-politics, American foreign policy, and the ramifications of all the above — while thoroughly enjoying yourself and being entertained at the same time as Wahlberg defies the odds, kicks a*ss and, of course, wins the day (and the beautiful, clever love interest — but of course!).

FYI, for those of you who wish to buy a copy of Shooter, with free worldwide delivery, then for the Region 1 DVD, click here; for the Region 2 DVD, click here.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery