25 January 2011
I don't have much to say about this. It's quickly become one of my favorite "classic" movies. Everything about it is so artificial, so contrived, so stagy, but it's also so incredibly beautiful and dreamlike. Having dissected the story the first time I saw this, I watched it more now for mood and cinematography. The number of iconic shots throughout are really exciting. (If you click the composite image above, you can see a larger version of it: this is an image I found online, and I think it predates the Criterion blu-ray release, which makes those images even more stunning.)
Mitchum's performance is so over the top that at times he becomes a cartoon character, and Shelly Winters, here as in Lolita, plays such a tragic, fucked-up woman... she's fascinating to watch for how un-starletty she plays her leading ladies. It's fun to watch someone from this era play a victim with such depth: she really seems emotionally scarred and vulnerable -- not just vulnerable but so malleable as to seem brainwashed, even before meeting the Rev. Harry Powell. The kids' performances aren't quite "real" but they match well with the style of performance from the adults.
All the shadows, the setpieces, the icons. It's a film that exists to be explored visually more than dramatically. It's a world of stark German-expressionist-era paintings of light and dark. It's freaky and dark and cool. And for all of its overt staginess, it's got a real scary core and some great human characters and ideas. I can't help but wonder what Laughton would have done if this had been even remotely successful, and he'd gone on to make a second film.