Twitter has a purpose after all and, as it turns out, it’s nothing to do with fomenting revolution in Iran. When Jon Melville, a Twitterverse friend as well as a real-life one, tweeted that he’d acquired the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, but had no means of watching it, I invited him round for dinner with alacrity (alacrity is a special sauce popular in Scotland). I have a player than can handle discs of different countries of origin, but not many discs to watch on it.
The Criterion disc is splendid, of course, as are the extras, but enough has been said elsewhere about that. Nor am I going to regale you with details of the splendid vegetable casserole Fiona prepared, nor the mulled wine quaffed. I want to talk about the film, for several posts, but where to begin?
A dull but perhaps original thought that came to me was that, boy, the Coens have been pilfering this movie for years. I haven’t seen TRUE GRIT yet, but have heard that the score relies heavily on Leaning on the Everlasting Arm, the hymn sung by Mitchum in Laughton’s classic. Which seemed like kind of a miscalculation: there are plenty of hymns to choose from, so why use one that will forcibly remind the audience of a great film, while they’re trying to concentrate on yours? The comparison is unlikely to be flattering, and I say that as one who admires six or so Coen films, and bits of some of the others.
“He was especially hard on the little things,” says Nicholas Cage of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA. “It’s a hard world for the little things,” says Lillian Gish in NIGHT.
“The Dude abides,” says the Cowboy in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. “They abide and they endure,” says Gish.
Even the use of jingling bells on the soundtrack to make Peter Stormare’s axe attack on Steve Buscemi “more Christmassy” — a whimsical idea in FARGO, or so it seemed to sound designer Skip Lievesay, who executed it — is anticipated towards the end of NOTH, where it’s startling but completely sensible.
I’d heard that the Coens liked to screen THE CONFORMIST and THE THIRD MAN to their crews before a shoot, which made sense as a way of getting the idea of self-conscious style into everybody’s head. The specific connections never seemed obvious until MILLER’S CROSSING, which features a hit in a forest and a romantic rejection at a funeral — but most of MILLER’S CROSSING is swiped from Dashiell Hammett anyway. The NIGHT OF THE HUNTER connection makes complete sense because of the idea of a mythic or biblical resonance being infused into a story with genre elements. Think of the reconfiguring of elements of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (chain gang, freight car, picture show) into the narrative structure of Homer’s Odyssey in O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Or the dybbuk, a wraith from Jewish mysticism, who turns up in a seemingly unrelated prologue to A SIMPLE MAN. All this could stem from a love of the way Laughton’s movie, taking its cue from Davis Grubb’s novel, interlaces the mundane with the numinous.
And that influence is a good thing, and it’s nice that some modern filmmakers have attempted to take up the gauntlet flung down by Laughton. Of course, the Coens don’t tend to take their characters and themes seriously enough for this stuff to actual resonate with anything outside cinema, but that’s them. I’m just not sure I like the paraphrases, in the same way I don’t much like Paul Schrader’s swiping of the end of PICKPOCKET for his AMERICAN GIGOLO. If you happen to see the more recent film first, it is apt to interfere with your first viewing of the older classic. Does the end of PICKPOCKET seem as “transcendental”, to use Schrader’s word, if you’re struck by a powerful sense of deja vu and see Richard Gere’s face superimposed over that of Martin LaSalle?