Monday, April 2, 2018

Two old movies with false preachers

Title: The Miracle Woman (1931)
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

It's Barbara Stanwyck's performance and screen presence that make this movie worth watching. She convincingly plays all shades of emotion, from righteous fury to tenderness to despair. She subtly expresses conflicted feelings and moments of doubt.

Her character, Florence Fallon, is the daughter of a minister. At the start of the movie, she delivers a tirade from the pulpit of her late father's church, because the congregation had treated him callously. After the congregants leave her to her anger and grief, a con artist (played by Sam Hardy) takes advantage of her in her vulnerable state and persuades her to enact a revenge against all the falsely pious people out there. He launches her into stardom as a fake faith healer, and she travels around giving fiery speeches and tricking people into giving up their money.

Even though Florence has become a false preacher, her words still have power in a way that sometimes does good. John Carson (David Manners), who lives alone and is blind, is convinced not to kill himself when he hears her over the radio. Although he's skeptical about faith healing and the spectacle surrounding her preaching, he's still moved by her and attends one of her shows to find out more. Florence herself is starting to get tired of her false preaching, and meeting John gives her a further push towards an honest life.

There are things the movie could have done without, namely the over-use of a ventriloquist dummy. But I liked how it shows faith and love struggling to find a way out and take root, in spite of everything that tries to cloak, choke, or impede them.

Title: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

The Night of the Hunter has the landscape of a dark folk tale. A river at night where young children escape by boat from a frenzied murderer. The murderer standing over the children's mother in a cramped and shadowed bedroom. The silhouette of an old woman with a gun held across her lap as she defends a house full of children from the murderer. During that scene, the old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sings a hymn, and the murderer, a false preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), joins in from where he sits outside in the dark. The words he uses are a little different from hers.

Powell is able to pass as a preacher not only thanks to his charisma but because he taps into some twisted beliefs that already resonate in the communities he cons. He exploits existing unhealthy ideas about female sexuality and marriage. He's good at finding the places where love and compassion are lacking. Like other predators, he also hones in on vulnerable people: lonely widows, girls raised without love, children who lack the protection of reliable adults.

These are some of the psychological insights that emerge in this riveting and disturbing movie. The movie is also sensitive to the behavior of children who have been hurt, abused, or betrayed. For instance, John (Billy Chapin), the young boy who flees the murderer with his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), receives a great gift from Rachel Cooper when she believes him that Powell is a dangerous man. John wasn't expecting to be believed when it was his word against the word of an adult. In another scene, he winds up beating Powell with a doll, and it's really a moment when he's raging against his birth dad, who stole the money that led Powell to appear and win over the children's mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). In another scene, Ruby (Gloria Castillo), one of the vulnerable children in Rachel Cooper's house, admits to sneaking out at night. Rachel responds by holding her and talking to her about the difference between real love and the kind of superficial (and potentially dangerous) attention Ruby gets from boys and men, which she has mistakenly confused for love.

The movie is richer for all of these moments. But it's also worth watching just for Mitchum's performance as a superficially charming terror, a real nightmare figure who can smooth talk in one scene and hunt children like a beast in another.