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PHILIP MARTIN: Time's up, Bluebeard?

by Philip Martin | July 14, 2019 at 2:13 a.m.

"It's a hard world for little things."

-- Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of the Hunter

The preacher is a Bluebeard.

That's an archaic way of putting it, and I wonder if there's a need to explain it to the modern people who might be reading this column.

Merriam-Webster defines it as a man who marries and kills one wife after another. It derives from a French folktale about a nobleman who murders a succession of wives and locks their rotting bodies away in an underground chamber. The best known version of the story was assembled by Charles Perrault and first published in Paris in 1697 in Histoires ou contes du temps passé.

One of the inspirations for the legend was Gilles de Rais, a knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc and who molested and murdered children. Another possible inspiration was the sixth-century Breton king Conomor the Accursed, who was said to murder his wives when they became pregnant. (He was widely believed to be a werewolf.)

Anyway, the preacher--who may not be a real preacher because his religion is the one "the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us"--is a Bluebeard. That's what the rioting townspeople who mean to lynch him call him in the third act. Back in 1955, the people who made movies took it for granted that their audiences would be familiar with the term.

Or at least that they could take its meaning from the context.

Not that you could completely trust the moviegoing audiences of 1955. They certainly didn't get The Night of the Hunter when it was released. A man tells me after I show the film to my Lifequest class that he remembered his family going to see it when it came out. His mother "was repulsed" and forbade him from seeing any more Robert Mitchum movies.

Which makes sense, for Mitchum's performance here is deliberately unsubtle and broad. His Harry Powell is a clown, a joker, and he leans into the character's awkward and unruly lack of sophistication. Powell knows one parable, which he demonstrates with the vulgar tattoos of "love" and "hate" on his knuckles. (Bruce Springsteen refined the imaging in his song "Cautious Man.")

Powell's Bluebeard is based in part on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer who was born Herman Drenth in the Netherlands in 1893. Powers was convicted of killing a woman he met through a lonely-hearts ad placed in a newspaper in 1931; he was suspected in the deaths of several other widows (and their children). He was hanged in the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville in 1932.

After Powers was arrested, a lynch mob surrounded the jail where he was being held. The New York Times estimated a crowd of 4,000. "MOB SURROUNDS JAIL WHERE POWERS IS HELD; Attempt to Lynch West Virginia 'Bluebeard' Feared--Tear Gas Keeps Crowd Back," the headline read.

While the Times doesn't report that the crowd shouted "Bluebeard," as they do in the movie, the inclusion of the word in the subhead is a hint.

Novelist David Grubb was from West Virginia. He incorporated many of the details of Harry Powers' story into the character of Harry Powell. (He invented the preacher part.) The Night of the Hunter was his first novel. It was a best-seller and a finalist for the National Book Award.

It's no longer in print, but one can take from the contemporary reviews that it was a solid Southern Gothic thriller, certainly a full step down from Faulkner, maybe a half a step below Erskine Caldwell. It had the mock-biblical patter, the juxtapositions of the sublime, and the grotesque--old-time religion and sexual horror.

British actor Charles Laughton wanted to direct the film version; he had the clout to enlist James Agee, the Tennessee-born journalist who had written the screenplay for The African Queen, to adapt it. Agee was alcoholic and unhealthy; he'd die of a heart attack a month before the film was released.

Laughton didn't much like the 293-page script Agee gave him, but while he made draconian cuts there's not much evidence he added to it. Still, there are those who credit Laughton as the actual author of the screenplay.

The question of who wrote the script seems less important than the way the movie is executed, at times jittery with an almost documentary grain about it, other times an inky, oddly formal Expressionistic play (if compared to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and to F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, nobody snorts out loud; I should mention D.W. Griffith too). See how the light carves out geometric figures and the architecture of Rev. Harry Powell's face. Maybe it's cinematographer Stanley Cortez's movie.

After all, it's just a story about a charlatan who murders for money. What's interesting is the chase, a slow-motion drift down an obviously artificial river, a bad man chasing the kids--wised-up innocents on the run--who know where the money is hidden.

It's also about the resilience of children, little things who can only accept the circumstances into which they are born. In The Night of the Hunter, the kids are issue of a bank-robbing murderer (Peter Graves) and compliant victim-to-be Willa (Shelley Winters, anticipating a similar early exit in Lolita). At her new husband's prayer meeting she confesses her responsibility for her husband's crimes. He robbed and killed to buy her perfumes and lingerie--signifiers of female sexual potential that disgust her new husband.

"That body was meant for begettin' children," he thunders at her on their wedding night. " It was not meant for the lust of men! Do you want more children, Willa?... It's the business of this marriage to mind the two you have now. Not to beget more. Alright, you can get in bed now. Stop shivering."

And she gets in bed with the Bluebeard. And soon enough she's underwater, her throat cut and her blonde hair waving like reeds under floodwater.

The Night of the Hunter feels timeless, a parable about dull male appetite and what we now call "privilege." It's scary because it's true, because it catches a certain kind of hypocrisy and self-delusion. Harry Powell believes he talks to God, that the deal he and the Almighty have worked out betwixt themselves licenses his crimes. After all, he only spends the money to further his ministry.

The news cycle is rich with Bluebeards--fellow travelers in misogyny, making the world harder for little things. But then, I thought the world found out about Jeffrey Epstein (and Michael Jackson and R. Kelley) years ago. I thought we knew these things.

Editorial on 07/14/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Time's up, Bluebeard?


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