Valse Triste

There’s an amazing extra on the new Criterion disc of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Well, there’s lots, actually. CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Robert Gitt’s amazing presentation of rushes and outtakes from Laughton’s film is the standout. I saw Gitt present this at Edinburgh Filmhouse many moons ago, and immediately asked him if it was going to appear on a DVD. He looked a little sad and said that since MGM had already released the film as a bare-bones DVD, there seemed little immediate prospect of that. So hooray for Blu-Ray!

But the bit I wanted to talk about is in the AFI interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez. This is a nifty little profile, in which, asides from remarking on Cortez’s close physical resemblance to his brother, 30s star Riccardo Cortez (AKA Mr. Sleaze), we get a valuable insight into the director-cinematographer collaboration.

Cortez remarks that as he was lighting the bedroom set for Shelley Winters’ murder, Laughton asked him what he was thinking. This, incidentally, is a question no straight man ever seems to ask of another. Fiona has given up asking me, because I always say, “I’m thinking, ‘What am I thinking?'” The question always destroys whatever thought I was having: however intriguing it looked from the outside of my head, it must have been very fragile on the inside. Not so with Cortez.

“None of your damn business,” he told Laughton, or words to that effect. “Because we had that kind of a relationship,” he grinned. And this seems to be the case: as Simon Callow describes their first meeting on THE MAN IN THE EIFFEL TOWER ~

‘”So you’re taking the picture over,’ said Laughton to Cortez on the latter’s first day. ‘Well, I’m happy to meet you, you big bastard.’ To which Cortez replied, ‘I’m very happy to meet you, you fat son of a bitch.'”

Laughton insisted, however, on knowing what was going through Cortez’s mind as he lit the set, and Cortez eventually said, “I’m thinking of a piece of music.” Now Laughton wanted to know what it was. “Valse Triste,” said Cortez.

Sibelius’s Valse Triste gets animated in the movie ALLEGRO NON TROPPO.

This news hit Laughton like a thunderbolt, and he immediately called the film’s composer, Walter Schumann, and told him that the Valse Triste was the musical key to the whole sequence. See the finished film, and Schumann’s waltz, which builds to a terrifying crescendo, is the backbone of the scene, in the same way the scoring of the river journey makes of it a virtual symphony of sound and image.

Laughton’s telepathy here, and I can think of no better word for it — he knew Cortez was thinking something important, and when he got it out of him he knew what to do with it — is a beautiful illustration of artistic sensitivity at its highest pitch of perfection. And so is the whole scene. In Gitt’s accompanying documentary, we see how Laughton labours to get just the right line reading from Winters (for a line eventually played in long shot), risking staleness in her performance by having her repeat it again and again, eventually emerging out the other side of that automatism that sets in after ten or so repetitions…

Shelley lies in a coffin of light.

And we hear Laughton say, before each take of the medium long shot, “The emptiness of Satan, and the cowardice of the religious hypocrite.” It’s like an invocation. It’s obviously directed at Mitchum, who’s expected to project all this with his back to the camera. And he does.

The phrase embraces many of the contradictions of preacher Harry Powell’s character — his horror of and fascination with sex is part of his hypocrisy, and yet his belief in his evil God is sincere enough for him to have frank conversations with the man upstairs. This was apparently the one part of the role that Mitchum had doubts about (and at the end of his career, his one question for Jim Jarmusch on DEAD MAN was, “Am I really talking to myself, or really to the stuffed bear?”) but you wouldn’t know it from the way he pulls it off. Mitchum, faking driving against a rear projection screen, talks to God for expository purposes, and is utterly convincing.

In the build-up to the murder, he seems to be communicating with his God too. How else to explain that strange gesture he makes as he’s working up the never to kill? It’s almost Frankensteinian. It’s more like dance than acting. Without music, how would it look? Without Cortez’s skillful lighting?

Incidentally, in this famous shot, not only does the camera seem to be outside the room, so does Shelley’s bed, hovering in a void.

The script clearly alternates between seeing the preacher as Satan, as a psychopath, and as a pathetic sub-human animal — but this is what Satan is, once you get him trapped in your barn. But in fact, there’s no contradiction in any of these things, even if Mitchum’s wild alterations of tone seem to reinforce the feeling of the character as being fragmented, broken inside into several discrete beings, all of them dangerous and unpleasant, for sure, but none of them wholly reconcilable with one another. That’s true hypocrisy, I suppose, the compartmentalizing of incompatible beliefs and drives, to create a dysfunctional but operational whole.

I’ve never known quite what to think about people who talk to God and think He talks back. People who hear voices are not necessarily suffering from a mental illness in the accepted sense. And people with mental illnesses who hear voices are not necessarily dangerous. A differentiation between the two groups is that if you know that the voice is originating from your own head, you’re probably sane and safe. You can assess whether to act on what the voice says by treating its advice as you would anybody else’s. But what of those who are clinically sane, but believe the voice they’re hearing is God’s? I can’t agree with them, for starters. And I can’t quite regard them as safe, either. They may have sanity, but they don’t have insight… Hearing voices and lacking insight into where they actually come from can be associated with schizophrenia, but maybe they’re more hazardous when they’re not.

I’m inclined to position the fictional preacher in this category — I don’t think we can consider him insane, although psychopathic certainly is a good diagnosis. His relationship with the voice in his head, like the Yorkshire Ripper’s, is a decidedly unhealthy one, and it’s made all the more dangerous by his superior cunning and ambition…

19 Responses to “Valse Triste”

  1. Harry Powell is (for me at least) one of most fascinating characters in all of film, from the snake oil peddler’s charm he uses to win over Willa and her friends to the animalistic yelps he lets out when Cooper pulls the gun on him. I’d have a hard time fitting him within any real-life psychiatric framework, but these are some interesting musings; I suppose Powell exists at that all-too-popular point where religious devotion meets mental illness. And like you say, his “superior cunning and ambition” mixed with his overwhelming hypocrisy makes him more dangerous (and somehow more appealing) than your typical fundamentalist.

    Incidentally, I had no idea until I read this that Ricardo and Stanley Cortez were brothers. Nor, until I looked it up minutes later, that they were actually both Austrian Jews.

  2. Telepathy? Cortez actually said in an interview that Laughton and him had “Mental intercourse”.

    Looking at the picture of Shelley in bed made me think of Inger in the coffin in Dreyer’s Ordet (still, since both films are from 1955, neither Lauhton nor Dreyer may have borrowed from each other)

  3. I read somewhere( maybe here) that Mitchum improvised alot of his performance in Cape Fear, the main example being when he picks up an egg and smashes in his hand, when he’s on the houseboat with Polly Bergen.
    Wonder if he improvised on Night…

  4. Valse Triste is also memorably used by Carmelo Bene in SALOME – the opening scene where Veruschka emerges from a moonlit pool, her naked body encrusted with jewels. For me, one of cinema’s indelible moments!

  5. One of the most fascinating instances of people listening to God’s voices is of course Jeanne d’Arc, that was why she was tried and executed and subsequently canonized by the very institution that killed her.

    Mitchum’s Harry Powell anticipates all the televangelists and crazies filling the US airwaves. He’s sexually repressed but uses his sexuality to convert people to God and his repressed sexuality is expressed very violently. Very messed up man. On the other hand, the remarkable moment is how he gets caught by the cops at the end and longs for the money and he’s sufficiently pitiful that he moves the son to fling it to him and for Laughton to make us feel his pity. His persecution by his former flock turned lynch mob is also very ironic moment.

    Harry Powell is evil in the larger-than-life storybook sense but in the end Laughton makes us and the children realize that he’s part of a larger social illness that is left uncured in the end.

  6. I may have to watch the last half hour another twenty times to form any halfway coherent respose to it — on my most recent viewing I was simply overwhelmed with emotions. The return of the executioner from act 1 is an amazing moment, rather comical in tone, while Lillian Gish leading the kids away from the mob makes a strong moral statement.

    Mitchum’s erectile switchblade certainly makes the point very forcefully that his sexual impulses, repressed by religion, find an outlet in violence.

    The making-of footage strongly suggests that neither Mitchum nor anybody else was improvising, Laughton has a unique control over the performances, partly exercised through the practice of playing all the parts himself, offscreen, in order to feed the cue-lines to whichever actor is in front of the cameras. He doesn’t micro-manage in a stifling way, but the attention to detail is exacting.

    Laughton called Cortez “the Brooklyn Spaniard” as a joking reference to his stage name. He was about as Spanish as Bernie Schwartz.

  7. I think when Powell is talking to God in the film, its not all that convincing, or like he really believes it. There’s not really any thing internal going on. I look at as more of a nihilistic burlesque, that’s entwined with the mob that forms later on; the same mob, who earlier in the film is more that happy to hang on to Powells every word. I think there’s a symbiosis between Powells nihilism and with the mob’s nihilism, which Gish shelters the children from in the town near the end of the film. Essentially, the town also has hate and love tatooed on their hands as well, as evidenced as how quickly they turn into a mob. They do this because they can’t face their own complicity with Powell.

  8. Oh Hell. I was trying to link Bruce Conner’s great Valse Triste, which used to be up on You Tube.

  9. No there’s not a nanosecond of improvisation innthe film — eevn from little Sally Jane Bruce.

    Mitchum was some sort of mad genius of an actor. His was by far his greatest role, and he drew on it not only for Cape Fear but Losey’s greatly underrated Secret Ceremony.

    In Michel Ciment’s Losey book the great director (who in the 60’s meant precisely as much to me as Godard as I discovered the wonders of mise en scene through repeated viewings of The Servant) said that Michem was particularly kind to Mia Farrow who became quite upset when the final divorce papers from Sinatra were delivered to her on the set. He took her aside and talked to her calmly in a manner that greatly impressed Losey.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Mitchum was some kind of strange gentleman. My favourite Mitchum performances though is THE LUSTY MEN and Lean’s film maudit, RYAN’S DAUGHTER which have him at his most vulnerable.

    Losey has taken me longer to get into but after seeing his Alain Delon films and THESE ARE THE DAMNED I am seriously impressed. I’d like to see his pre-blacklist stuff.

    It’s a real shame that Laughton never got to do more after this film, he could have been the British Orson Welles.

  11. The key pre-blacklist Losey is his last American film, The Big Night. You can sense he’s packing his bags in the final reel of this utterly merciless expose of who really counts in The Lad of the Free. Drew Barrymore’s father gives the performance of his life in this — and Dorothy Commingore her very last one.

    Years later Barrymore told Losey the FBI had ordered him to spy on the director during the shooting, in order to find out his connections to Commie Spies. Needless to say there weren’t any, But Barrymore was deeply ashamed and begged Losey for forgiveness. Losey said there was nothing to forgive. He really loved the kid.

    Losey’s other American masterpiece is his remake of M.

    Re. Delon, Monsieur Klein is my favorite Losey — and Delon’s greatest performance as an actor. Pay particular attention to his face in the film’s final seconds.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    M. KLEIN is one of the definitive films of the Occupation, it’s very mysterious as is THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY which feels Borgesian despite hewing so close to the facts. And the last scene of that is also a great acting moment for Delon. Oddly the assassin character is one of the more sympathetic and vulnerable characters he played around this most important period of his career. The feeling of doom and death and the Mexico setting recalls Lowry’s ”Under the Volcano” which Losey planned to adapt as well.

    The first Losey I saw was his rendition of GALILEO for the American Theatre. Losey directed Laughton in the legendary Los Angeles version of the 40s and as per his fine interview book with Tom Milne initially considered shooting the film on location in Vatican, but the Church turned him down for rather obvious reasons.

    I came across this interview where Losey accuses Laughton for naming him to the FBI and getting him blacklisted,
    This was in the 70s, so maybe it’s the not the whole story and maybe there’s more to Laughton’s side but I wonder if this is what happened.

  13. That’s rather startling (and deeply sad) about Laughton naming Losey. If that’s true it’s because they were going to “out” him as gay. That’s why Jerry Robbins named names.

    You;re right about Delon in The Assassination of Trotsky. The look on his face as he says the last line is amazing. It’s the character’s coming-to-conscience in a way that only as morally dark a man as Delon could do.

  14. Judy Dean Says:

    According to Lee Server, Mitchum’s biographer, when Mitchum was given the novel to read he found it chimed with his own Depression-era encounters in the South with religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. Julie Mitchum is quoted as saying that he took the part “to show people not to follow some character because he’s got a Bible in his hands or because he’s got his collar on back to front, to alert people to these kinds of characters. And he was always very sympathetic to the exploitation of children.”

  15. Christopher Says:

    Thank God we have Lillian Gish to straighten us all out! ;o)
    A strong voice in front and behind the camera.

  16. That’s precisely why Laughton cast her. It was a masterstroke. The film doesn’t exist without her.

  17. As Lindsay Anderson said, “Lillian Gish is an angel. But angels are not weak, wishy-washy things. Angels are STRONG.”

    (He also said, if Lillian is an angel, Bette… has a devil IN her…”)

  18. As well as all the roles fit together in NOTH, to form an allegory, some of the female roles, to me, seem two dimensional, like Miss Cooper’s eldest daughter is naive to the point of stereotype in her need for attention from boys, while the boys hardly seem naive. Also Shelley Winters, easily swayed to marry Powell, then be converted to zealotry, and then willingly becomes Powell’s victim. And Gish is Gish, but the role is just the Victorian stereotype of female chastity and sacrifice.
    These roles contrast with Icey Spoon ( the name kind of says it), the pushy do gooder, turned leader of tomnsfolk mob, torch ablaze.
    So, if the female characetrs aren’t permutations of Trilby, they’re real hellions.

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