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A First Time for Everything

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson, who writes about this weekend's Winter Nights films.

It may seem that this week’s Winter Nights show is a mismatched pair of films.  The films do have a few things in common. Besides the fact that they are both “visual feasts” with dramatic photography, they both contain violent images and they both were the first films made by their respective directors.

The first film that will be shown is Night of the Hunter (1955), which was directed by Charles Laughton.  He had been a successful actor in movies for some 25 years by the time he decided to direct this film.  It was not successful when released, and Laughton returned to acting.  Laughton’s blood-and-thunder opening, followed by the sensitive, dramatic approach to the ending, was a little jarring for 1955 audiences.  Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is unhinged and creepy, a complete departure from roles he’d been playing up to that time.  Seen today, it’s an unforgettable bravura performance, but at the time reviewers found it confusing.  Mitchum is top-billed, but is the film’s villain, even though he does not appear for long stretches of screen time.

As the film reaches its midsection, the entire tone of the story changes.  Trying to escape the influence of murderer Mitchum, two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), flee down a river and continue on several adventures.  Their exploits have an almost story-book quality to them, thanks to the photography of Stanley Cortez.


Cortez (1908-1997) is the film’s true star, because Night of the Hunter literally shimmers with his dazzling photography.  He had been working in films for years, notably on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and he had a fondness for experimental photographic techniques, often things that mainstream Hollywood was reluctant to let him do.  Charles Laughton gave Cortez a free hand to try different things, within the bounds of Laughton’s overall vision, which was to create a German Expressionistic atmosphere.  Cortez was only nominated for an Oscar twice, although he never won.  Although Night of the Hunter is perhaps his finest work, it was not nominated at all.

Director Laughton also went un-nominated, another undeserved slight.  Most directors tend to be either technical experts, overseeing the photography and editing, or acting specialists who compose sloppy films.  Laughton handled both tasks well.  Children are particularly difficult to direct, and Laughton lavished extra time on them to get the performances he needed.  Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s widow, donated 80,000 feet (over 13 hours) of footage showing outtakes and behind-the-scenes shots, enough that UCLA historians were able to make a documentary about Night of the Hunter that lasts longer than the film itself.

Like Night of the Hunter, the second film on the program Un Chien Andalou (1929) also starts off violently.  Un Chien is the first film directed by Luis Buñuel, who, unlike Laughton, went on to a long career directing movies.

Inspired by dream logic and surrealistic art, Buñuel and collaborator Salvador Dali made a film comprised almost solely of stunning images without a thread of plot to connect them.  Their hope was that it would annoy and upset patrons looking for a conventional narrative, and they were slightly disappointed when the film caught on with audiences and got decent reviews.


The film’s opening shot is not for the squeamish, and is one of the most iconic in all cinema.  Actress Simonne Mareuil apparently has her eye slashed open with a razor (actually done by intercutting with a dead calf’s eye being cut).  This image is juxtaposed with a cloud, also shaped like a razor, “cutting” across the surface of the moon.

Un Chien Andalou continues at a breakneck pace throughout its brief 16-minute running time, with images of ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand, dead donkeys strapped to pianos, and, well, a lot of other things.

Overall, it makes no sense, but it isn’t supposed to make sense.  Like all art, it’s supposed to make the audience think and feel, which it still does.

Both films will be screened Friday night in the Toby, starting at 7pm. 

Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

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