Haunting Hunting in 'Night'

Anyone who saw Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" probably remembers the dude with the boom box and the rings, one spelling "hate" across his fingers, the other "love."

Lee and his big-and-bad character made a good point about how our moral intentions don't always jibe with our nastier impulses, but he lifted the image from someone else. Robert Mitchum appears in the strange and mesmerizing "The Night of the Hunter" with the same words tattooed above the knuckles of each hand.

As Harry Powell, the psychotic preacher who has the hardest time obeying the First Commandment, Mitchum is the grinning monster at the center of the 1955 movie, directed by Charles Laughton. Lee used the symbols mainly to describe ghetto tension, but Laughton, Mitchum and screenwriter James Agee turn them into a reminder that man, after all, may be unrepentingly evil at the core.

"The Night of the Hunter" (which closes out the Newport Harbor Art Museum's short tribute to Laughton on Friday night) is a sensational movie, distinguished by the eeriest of inspirations that render it both artful (sometimes floridly so) and frightening. Laughton, in this, the only film he ever directed, created something highly original.

The opening passage tells us right off that this won't be a typical experience. Lillian Gish as Rachel, the movie's heroine, floats among the stars, quoting the Bible. The brood of orphans she watches over, seen only as smiling, disembodied heads, listen raptly.

It's weird, melodramatic and reminiscent of D. W. Griffith, especially his use of sentimental visions and his layering of image upon image for effect. There's a dreamy sway (not unlike a silent movie) to this beginning that infuses the entire picture and lets the creepiness that unfolds seem more foreboding.

Mitchum's Harry shows up soon after, looking skyward while driving through the countryside. He's having a conversation with his God, a vengeful partner. "There are things you hate, Lord," he says, "perfumey things, lacy things, things with curly hair . . ." We see his switchblade moments later, as he angrily watches a girlie show in town, and it's clear he's insane. Mitchum's laconic face turns twitchy fast, his calming baritone rising with danger.

Agee's scenario pits Harry against John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), two children who know where $10,000 in stolen money is hidden. After marrying, then murdering, their mother (Shelley Winters, in one of her better innocent victim roles), Harry chases them downstream in an odyssey equal parts terror and pastoral beauty.

When the youngsters' skiff washes ashore (it's a reference to Moses escaping tragedy as an infant, one of the movie's many biblical connections), the shotgun-wielding Gish's Rachel becomes their unlikely protector. She has the hard countenance of a nun who won't brook any foolishness. Rachel lifts her weapon and reminds us that "it's a hard world for little things," even as Harry stalks from the bushes.

"The Night of the Hunter" wasn't widely accepted when it came out, and it's not hard to figure out why. The contrast of sentimentality ripe with religious overtones against the blunt violence can be jarring; audiences of the day, probably not used to such directness, were shocked.

Beyond that, Laughton and respected cinematographer Stanley Cortez willfully take chances throughout, providing an ambiance that is both naturalistic and surreal. "The Night of the Hunter," ultimately more of a sermon on good and evil than a spook show, is a movie flush with style.

* Who: Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter."

* When: Friday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m.

* Where: The Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.

* Whereabouts: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Jamboree Road and head north to Santa Barbara Drive and then east to San Clemente Drive.

* Wherewithal: $3 for museum members, seniors and students; $5 for the public.

* Where to call: (714) 759-1122.

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