Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the hidden hideaway for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. We’re so glad you could join us tonight. I hope you’ve been able to stay warm. There’s no cover charge tonight. We still have a few good tables available. Bring your own beverage.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
Yesterday I asked you if you thought it was a good idea for the Cubs to sign free agent outfielder Nick Castellanos. After the lockout, of course. That was a given. The vote was close, but by a margin of 42 percent to 38 percent, you voted “Nay!” to a North Side reunion. The other 20 percent said ‘Meh.”
If this lockout lasts into May, I’m wondering whether the movie essays will become the most popular part of the site. So you may want to get into that now. But for those who don’t care for it, here’s the part where I discuss jazz and movies. Feel free to skip to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.
I’m going back to guitarist Wes Montgomery for tonight’s tune. It’s his version of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” written in 1953 by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for the musical Carnival in Flanders. The song became a jazz standard after that and you’re probably familiar with the tune. I think Montgomery’s version is the best one I’ve heard. (Although if others can suggest better versions, I’m all ears.)
So with Stan Tracey on piano, Rick Laird on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums, here’s Wes Montgomery on British television in 1965.
You voted for me to write about The Night of the Hunter tonight, but I promised that I would do the 1947 version of Nightmare Alley next week, so those of you who voted for that need not fret. It will also give all of you who signed up for the Criterion Channel this week a chance to watch Nightmare Alley over the weekend. You know who you are.
Nightmare Alley is also running on TCM on Saturday night at 11 pm Central and 10 am Sunday morning for those who subscribe.
On to 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, which is the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. Starring Robert Mitchum as the “Reverend” Harry Powell, a sociopathic con man and serial killer who masquerades as a man of God. With “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on the knuckles of his hands, Mitchum’s character is one of the most iconic in the history of cinema.
(Laughton was forced by the Production Code office to make it clear that Powell was not an ordained minister of any religion, either real or imaginary, and that his status as a “reverend” is self-appointed. When watching this picture with my wife, she asked me “Is this pre-Code?” Of course it isn’t, but I can see how someone could make that mistake. It’s extremely dark and disturbing for a film from the 1950s. Even after it made the changes to pass muster with the Code, The Night of the Hunter was still banned in several cities. It’s still a terrifying film, but most of its terror is psychological.)
Opposing Mitchum’s force of pure evil is Rachel Cooper, played by silent film star Lillian Gish. Gish is a selfless old lady of God who takes in lost children and raises them as if they were her own. Both Powell and Cooper quote the Bible at great lengths, but to different ends. Powell uses scripture to manipulate others, whereas Cooper uses it to educate her wards about the goodness of God. Other than a cameo at the beginning of the film, Rachel Cooper doesn’t appear until the final third of the film. Nevertheless, The Night of the Hunter is basically a fable about the struggle between Powell and Cooper.
The “Reverend” Powell uses the tattoos on his hands to tell a story about the struggle between good and evil. In Powell’s hands, the story is simply a way to manipulate people. But Laughton is basically telling the same story about the struggle between good and evil in this picture. The Night of the Hunter is a religious allegory and as such, both Mitchum and Gish are freed from any need to play their characters as any sort of real human being. Mitchum plays the embodiment of evil and Gish portrays an angel of goodness, albeit one with a shotgun. Hey, the Archangel Michael carried a sword.
Mitchum especially takes great glee in being free to ham it up as much as he possibly can. In most films, this would be distracting, but it really works in The Night of the Hunter. The way Mitchum chants “CHILLL—-dren” is creepy enough to send chills down your spine. There is nothing redeeming or even human about the Harry Powell. The film even lets Mitchum hint that his character is a pedophile.
I should also take a moment to praise the performance of Shelley Winters, who plays the widow Willa Harper, a woman who is so desperate for both salvation and male companionship that she falls for Powell’s con game hook, line and sinker. Her situation and behavior gives insight into why some people allow themselves to be preyed upon by such obvious grifters.
The Night of the Hunter nominally takes place in West Virginia during the Great Depression, but really, it takes place on a Hollywood back lot. I’m not saying that to be cute—Laughton intentionally gave the entire film a sense of unreality. Laughton reached back to the silent picture era of his youth for this film and in particular, the German expressionist films of the 1920s. The use of light and shadow, the sharp and irregular angles of the sets and the off-center camera angles are clearly in debt to such silent German horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Like Bertolt Brecht in theater, Laughton wanted to keep the audience at arms-length from the characters so that they would listen to the message and not get caught up in the emotions. But he also wanted the audience to be terrified. Brecht was full of those same kinds of contradictions as well.
Much of the credit for this film needs to go to cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons. Cortez said that both Welles and Laughton let him go wild, but both men always had a specific goal for each scene that they wanted. As a director, Laughton has been compared to Welles and The Night of the Hunter was his Citizen Kane. But Hunter’s failure at the box office meant that Laughton was never allowed to direct another movie again.
Laughton wanted to play Harry Powell himself, but was told that he wouldn’t be able to get financing unless he had a bigger box office name as the star. Laughton also got well-respected Hollywood screenwriter and critic James Agee to write the screenplay from the original novel by Davis Grubb. But Agee was well down the road to drinking himself to death by the time Laughton approached him and would not live to see the film’s premiere. According to Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester, Laughton had to throw out Agee’s entire script as it was pure garbage. Laughton apparently ended up writing the film himself, with some help from several others, including Mitchum, who wrote many of the “Reverend” Powell’s lines himself. Agee still got screenplay credit as Laughton still needed that “name” screenwriter for the investors.
Laughton also wanted Lanchester to play Rachel Cooper, but she refused. She never said why, but my guess is that she didn’t want to be ordered around by her husband on the set for several weeks. Instead, Lanchester told her husband that if he’s trying to re-create the feeling of a silent picture, then why not get Gish, who was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s silent era?
And parts of the film do play like a silent picture, especially the middle third where the “Reverend” Powell chases two children across the West Virginia wilderness.
Spoilers for a 66-year-old movie to follow:
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is a bank robber who killed two police officers during a robbery that netted him $10,000. With the cops hot on his heels, Harper makes his way back to his ramshackle rural farm to hide the money, which he intends to be a nest egg for his two young children, John (Billy Harper) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
With only minutes to hide the money, Powell decides to stuff the money inside Pearl’s doll and swears the two of them to secrecy before the police arrive and arrest him in front of his two children.
Ben Harper is sentenced to death and while awaiting execution, he ends up in a jail cell with the Harry Powell, who is doing time for car theft. The “reverend” finds out about the missing money and after he serves his sentence (and after Harper is hung), Powell heads to Harper’s farm to find the money.
Powell explains that he knew Ben Harper in prison, but misrepresents himself as the prison chaplain and not as a fellow inmate. The trusting people of this town are immediately taken in by Powell quoting the scripture and his claims of being a man of God. Especially taken in is Harper’s widow Willa, who is clearly desperate for a change in her life. She also blames herself for her husband’s execution and she seeks forgiveness for her sins through the “reverend’s” false religion.
Soon Powell and Willa are married, but Willa quickly learns that her husband is not what he appears to be. At that point, Powell murders Willa and dumps her and her car at the bottom of the river, while telling the local townsfolk that she just ran off.
(The scene with Shelley Winters at the bottom of the river is perhaps the most famous and most chilling one in the film. It’s included in the clip presented below.)
All the while, Powell tries to get both Willa and the children to tell him where the hidden $10,000 is. But Willa didn’t know about it and young John, who never trusted Powell, makes sure that Pearl doesn’t tell. But with Willa gone, Powell is now free to terrorize his stepchildren.
John and Pearl get away and steal their uncle’s boat and start heading down the river with the “Reverend” Powell close behind them on horseback. After a few adventures, the two children are discovered asleep on the riverbank by the elderly Rachel Cooper, who only sighs that she now has two more mouths to feed.
As it turns out, Rachel Cooper is running an ad hoc orphanage on her farm, where she takes in stray orphans or even local kids whose parents can’t afford to take proper care of them anymore. One of the older girls, Ruby, has begun to discover boys and sneaks out to the local drug store to hang out with the boys. There she is creepily hit on by none other than the “Reverend” Powell. The trusting Ruby reveals to Powell that there are two new children at the farm named John and Pearl.
Powell goes out to the farm to get his stepchildren, but his “man of God” act doesn’t work on Rachel Cooper, who knows the Bible much better than Powell does. She tells him to get lost. Powell leaves, but vows to return.
Cooper waits for Powell in a scene that Roger Ebert called “Whistler’s Mother holding a shotgun.” Cooper shoots Powell and traps him in her barn. By this time, the police have discovered Willa’s body and have been searching for Powell. They arrive and arrest him for the murder of Willa Harper. (As it turns out, Powell had been marrying and murdering women up and down all of West Virginia.)
But the sight of Powell getting arrested parallels the scene of John’s father Ben getting arrested at the beginning of the film, and young John flips out. He takes Pearl’s doll and starts hitting the cops, sending the ten thousand dollars flying all over the place.
There’s a trial for Powell and a lynch mob comes after him. While the police rescue him from the mob, they vow that Powell will meet the hangman’s noose soon enough. Meanwhile, Rachel Cooper hurries the children away from the carnage of the mob and back to the farm, where they all celebrate Christmas together. Cooper ends the film with this line:
Lord, save little children. You’d think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rain’s a-cold. Yet they abide...They abide and they endure.
End of the Spoilers:
The Night of the Hunter regularly ends up on lists of the greatest films of all time. That Sight and Sound poll from 2012 has it as the 63rd-best film ever. The 2008 list from the French journal Cahiers du Cinema praises it even more, ranking it as the second-best film ever, only behind Citizen Kane.
Yet despite the praise the film gets today, The Night of the Hunter was a flop back in 1955. The film was certainly grim and dark for the period and United Artists didn’t give it much of a publicity push, preferring to promote Mitchum’s other film for them, Not As A Stranger instead.
But Mitchum’s over-the-top portrait of evil as a fake reverend is one of the greatest villains in movie history. The film is terrifying, but it’s also funny at times as well. It’s also moving as well, and I’ll admit that I got a little choked up by the end of the movie and Rachel’s speech about the children. It deserves its title as a masterpiece and is something that every movie fan really should watch at least once. It also makes me angry that Laughton never got to direct another picture.
Here’s the scene that I mentioned in the spoiler section. If you’ve seen the film before or you just don’t care about spoilers, you should watch it as it’s one of the most haunting images in Hollywood history.
Welcome back to everyone who skips the jazz and movies.
Tonight’s question is about the Yu Darvish trade to the Padres, which was completed a year ago last week. New team president Jed Hoyer traded Darvish to the Padres after he was told to cut payroll following the abbreviated 2020 season with no fans. In exchange for Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini, the Cubs got infielders Reginald Preciado and Yeison Santana as well as outfielders Owen Caissie and Ismael Mena. Oh, they also got pitcher Zach Davies, about whom the less said, the better.
The trade was incredibly unpopular around here when it was made, as 55 percent of you gave it a “Nay!” in our readers’ poll and only 15 percent liked it. (The rest of you gave it the lovely “meh” grade.)
But I was wondering what you all thought of the Darvish deal a year later? Darvish was very good for the Padres in the first half of 2021, but he struggled down the stretch. Many have connected his decline to the crackdown on the use of foreign substances, but that’s just speculation at this point. Caratini became the Padres’ starting catcher by default, but his 0.0 bWAR doesn’t make it seem like the Cubs took a big loss there. On the other hand, throughout most of the 2021 season, the Cubs would have killed for a backup catcher with a 0.0 WAR.
As far as the players the Cubs got back, I can promise you that both Owen Caissie and Reginald Preciado will end up on my Top Ten Cubs prospect list when it is finally unveiled. Both players look like they could be a part of the Cubs future, although they are still both a long way away from the majors and there are no guarantees. I don’t expect it, but it is possible both of them wash out in Double-A.
Santana, however, struggled last season as did Mena, although Mena is two years younger and he did show some promise beyond the numbers. Mena’s struggled as he was young for his level while Santana’s struggles were as someone who was right about at the right age for his level.
So how do you feel about the Darvish trade now? Did you hate it back then but like it now? Do you still hate it? Or maybe you’re just “meh” about the entire thing?
My feelings on the Darvish trade are . . .
This poll is closed
I hated it back then and I still hate it
I hated it back then but now I like it
I liked it back then and I still like it
I liked it back then and now I don’t
I’ve always been "meh"
If you were “meh” back then and have changed your mind, just pick the choice that is the closest description of your feelings.
It’s closing time again. Thanks again for stopping by. Drive home safely. Stay warm. And be sure to stop by again next week for another edition of BCB After Dark.