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Beyond Good & Evil: Behind the scenes of ‘The Night of the Hunter’

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Robert Mitchum played a “diabolical shit” in The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum was Harry Powell—a twisted serial killer who disguised himself as a fire and brimstone reverend to find the location of some stolen loot. In order to get to it, Powell has to marry Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and become the stepfather to her children—John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). It soon becomes obvious that Powell is not going to be married for very long.

Upon its release, The Night of the Hunter was reviled by critics and audiences alike. The press hated everything about it. They hated the script by novelist and poet James Agee. They loathed Robert Mitchum’s “hammy” acting. They denounced Charles Laughton for his weird, bizarre and utterly perverse direction. They decried his deliberate use of movie sets to tell his story. They also hated his use of black and white film. This was the Technicolor fifties, they said, the nuclear age of rock ‘n’ roll, hula-hoops, Cinemascope, and drive ins. This was no place for a ramped-up Southern Gothic melodrama. Audiences agreed and the film tanked at the box office.

It was actor Charles Laughton’s first and only film as director. The negative reviews hurt so much that he abandoned any hope of opening up a new career as Hollywood director. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb. Agee was the screenwriter of The African Queen and had written the text to accompany Walker Evan’s ground breaking photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Agee died not long after the film was completed. The story of The Night of the Hunter had been inspired by the case of the real life serial killer Harry Powers who murdered two widows and three children in the 1930s. Powers sought out his victims through the ads in newspapers lonely hearts’ ads.
 
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Robert Mitchum was convincingly deranged as Powell in The Night of the Hunter. His hands were tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE” above the knuckles—as his character explained in the film:

Ah, little lad, you’re starin’ at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand-Left Hand - the story of good and evil?

H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. 

L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends! The hand of love!

Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life. These fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warrin’ and a-tuggin’, one agin’ the other.

Now, watch ‘em. Ol’ brother Left Hand. Left hand, he’s a-fightin’. And it looks like LOVE’s a goner. But wait a minute, wait a minute! Hot dog! LOVE’s a winnin’? Yes, siree. It’s LOVE that won, and ol’ Left Hand HATE is down for the count!

Many a young punk was said to have copied Mitchum’s homemade LOVE/HATE tattoos—no doubt as badge to their stupidity. Laughton originally wanted Gary Cooper to play the evil reverend—but he nixed the idea on the grounds it would damage his good guy image. Mitchum was far less precious. He jumped at the chance to play Powell—allegedly fighting off interest from both Laurence Olivier and John Carradine. Mitchum was unforgettable—a performance only rivalled by his later turn as Max Cady in Cape Fear.

Laughton cast Shelley Winters as the pivotal character Willa Harper—whose murder leads Mitchum to chase her children across the country. Winters gives a restrained performance that only emphasizes the horror of her misfortune. The children were played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. Laughton had considered his wife Elsa Lanchester for the role of the old woman who protects the children from Mitchum. Lanchester suggested he try silent movie star Lillian Gish—a perfect choice for such a strange, disturbing and dreamlike movie.

Filmed in the Fall of 1954, Laughton created an unforgettable Expressionist style—imbued with menace and filled with allegory—along with the cinematographer Stanley Cortez—cameraman from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and later Sam Fuller’s classic Shock Corridor.  The film had a budget of around $800k which meant they were unable to film on location—hence the use of indoor film sets—something Laughton used to great stylistic effect. Today The Night of the Hunter is considered a classic—one of the Library of Congress’ films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
 
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Robert Mitchum with director Charles Laughton.
 
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More behind the scenes photos from ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Yakuza: Beautiful hand-painted vintage portraits of tattooed Japanese gangsters

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I had never heard of the Yakuza until I tuned in one night to a Robert Mitchum movie back in the 1970s. Here was big Bob dealing with bad boy Japanese gangsters in a clash of east meets west. The film was simply titled The Yakuza. It was written by brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader—their first hit screenplay and one in which can be seen some of the themes they would later develop individually and together in movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Mishima. I liked the film and was greatly intrigued by the rituals depicted in it and the code of honor by which these dangerous, violent gangsters lived their lives.

One ritual in particular, the chopping off of the top of the small finger as a payment or apology for any wrong-doing, I thought bizarre and hardly punishment at all until I later discovered its historic symbolism. The removal of the tip made it difficult for an individual to hold their samurai sword. The sword was gripped tight by the bottom three fingers while flexibility and movement was produced by index finger and thumb. To lose a chunk of a fingertip or the whole pinky was ultimately a death sentence—as the punished yakuza would eventually be unable to defend themselves in a fight.

The film also picked up on the awesome body tattoos these way heavy gangsters sported. Whole bodies decorated with elaborate illustrations of beautiful maidens, tranquil landscapes, and grinning demons. Like bad boy superheroes, these guys could walk around in their suits and ties all day and no one would know they were Yakuza. Come nightfall, in the comfort of their own gangland den, the clothes would come off and the tatts would be displayed.

These tattoos or irezumi as they’re called in Japan—a word that literally mean insert ink—were originally representative of an individual’s spirituality or biography. This lasted for a good two-three thousand years. Then around the Kofun era (330-600AD), tattoos were considered a symbol of being criminal or lower class. Their popularity fluctuated until tattooing was outlawed sometime around the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan moved from a feudal world into a unified country. Tattoos were seen as an embarrassing symbol of Japan’s uncivilised past. The practice moved underground—continued by criminal gangs, who tattooed the unexposed parts of their bodies. Hence the all-over body tattoos many yakuza carry to this day on their skin. These tattoos are “hand-poked”—that is the ink is put under the skin by using sharpened bamboo spears or small handmade needles. It is a long, painful and laborious process but one that most yakuza accept as part of the ritual of being a gang member.

The Meiji era also brought an end to the samurai warriors, who were outlawed and conscripted into the army. Some chose to join the yakuza instead—as many yakuza had fought alongside samurai for local shoguns. The issue of body tattoos becomes complicated as there were samurai who sported such irezumi as a means of identification should they be killed on the battlefield. As samurais faded, the criminal fraternity thrived. Today yakuza play a major role in Japan—both in criminal activity (prostitution, money laundering, people trafficking) and legitimately in media and politics. The yakuza keep drugs out of Japan, they also organize charity and aid relief for disaster victims. Most Japanese accept the yakuza as a necessary part of national life. Each yakuza family or gang have their own set of rules and regulations which differ group to group and gang to gang.

These hand-painted photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s depict members of the yakuza displaying their gang related tattoos. Some have posed in relation to their standing within the gang, most have kept their faces hidden, but each has a different style of tattoo inked on their body.
 
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More vintage yakuza tattoos, after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Robert Mitchum gets busted for ‘reefers,’ making weed seem hip to middle America
06.09.2015
10:19 am

Topics:
Crime
Drugs
Movies

Tags:
marijuana
Robert Mitchum

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The cops were hiding in the bushes outside a bungalow at 8443 Ridpath Drive, peeking in the windows scoping actress Lila Leeds in her scanties having her hair styled by her roommate, dancer Vicki Evans. The cops, Det, Sgt, Alva Barr and Det. J. B. Mckinnon were working on a tip-off that tonight there was gonna be a reefer party with some big name Hollywood bad boy whose arrest would deliver them kudos down the precinct and a shitstorm unto the Studios.

The LAPD was being squeezed to crack down on the drug use rife among the Hollywood’s boho cognoscenti. Every two-bit actor and lounge room muso was getting high on some kinda illegal DOPE. This had to be stopped, it was sending out a bad influence on middle America.

Lila Leeds was bottle blonde perfection, the sort of girl who left men drooling. She was pitched as the next Lana Turner, but being pitched as someone else is never the same as being pitched as yourself—it meant you were a copy and a copy is always expendable. Add in a few cat fights at the Mocambo and an accidental overdose to her resume and Lila knew she was on her last chance to make it big. Then she met Robert Mitchum—tough handsome Bob Mitchum with the sleepy-eyed look that gave girls goosebumps. Lila figured with Bob things might just be on the way back up. Mitchum was in a temporary split from his wife—she’d moved back east with the kids leaving Mitchum to his own devices in Hollywood—working hard and making the most of his time alone.
 
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‘It’s a bust!’: Mitchum and Leeds arrested.
 
September 1948, Mitchum was out house-hunting, getting the tour from part-time friend and real estate agent Robin Ford. Mitchum had seen Lila a couple of times—they’d hit it off as both liked to party, both liked to booze, and both liked to smoke weed. Mitchum suggested a reefer party some night and a date was set. Lila told Vicki about the plans. Mitchum told Ford. One of them snitched.

As Vicki fixed Lila’s hair, Mitchum phoned to say he was on his way up. Lila had two new boxer puppies who scampered out to meet Mitchum and Ford as they pulled into the drive. Lila put the puppies out on the closed-in back porch. Mitchum asked for the lights to be dimmed, said he thought he’d seen someone prowling around the bushes out front. He checked but saw nothing. Detectives Barr and Mckinnon had moved when the boys had arrived, taking up position at the back porch, just itching for the back door to be opened so they could make their arrests.

Mitchum dropped a pack of smokes on the living room table. Lila opened it up—brown and white, she said, before lighting them up. Later she recalled how Vicki Evans hadn’t taken a smoke when offered, only asking “Will they knock me out?”

Out back the pups started yapping at the cops lurking in the bushes. Vicki said she go let them in. As she opened the back door, Barr and Mckinnon burst in. Mitchum picked up a table and got ready to hurl it at the intruders. “Police officers! Freeze!” Mitchum froze. The spliff in his fingers was smoked right down and it burned his fingers. No one moved, only Vicki said, “Gee, it’s just like the movies!”
 
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Mitchum and Leeds up before the judge.
 
Mitchum, Lila, Vicki and Ford were taken downtown. Their statements read as if they’d been written by a B-movie screenwriter. Mitchum supposedly said:

“Yes, boys, I was smoking the marijuana cigaret when you came in. I guess it’s all over now. I’ve been smoking marijuana for years. The last time I smoked was about a week ago. I knew I would get caught sooner or later. This is the bitter end of my career. I’m ruined.”

While Lila Leeds is quoted as saying:

“I have been smoking marijuana for two years. I don’t smoke every day. I was smoking that small brown stick when you came in. I’m glad it’s over. I’m ruined.”

Even Ford ‘fessed up to being “ruined.”

The cops were all yukking it up and back slappin’ that they caught their big tough guy movie star. This bust at the hillside “reefer resort” was going to put an end to drugs in Hollywood and the pernicious influence of bad boys like Mitchum on godly American youth. The truth though is that hardly anyone knew Mitchum smoked weed—certainly no one in the hinterlands of smalltown America had any inkling about the actor’s penchant for “reefers.”
 
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‘Just the facts, Bob…’
 
As if to signal a job well done, the Chief of Police went on a fishing holiday. But it didn’t go exactly as the cops had hoped.

More Mitchum and marijuana after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Acting is ‘better than working’: Robert Mitchum interviewed for French TV

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Robert Mitchum started out making Westerns at $100 a week, and all the horse manure he could take home. It was, he says, like “playing Cowboys and Indians out in the fresh air,” and was better than working. The way Mitchum tells it, he got hired to play himself, and only worked when his family got bored of him hanging around the house. 

Mitchum may have been self-effacing, but he was always very sure of himself. He was grounded, centered, and that’s what made hims attractive - you knew you could rely on him. In this interview for French TV, Mitchum suggests acting is 10% talent and 90% craft; talks his experience of working on Ryan’s Daughter; and explains why his favorite actor was Charles Laughton.

Footnote: The above picture is from one of Mitchum’s best films, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, based on the brilliant novel by George V. Higgins. If you haven’t seen it (or read it), do yourself a favor, get it now.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment