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Friday, October 5, 2018

Beyond the Canon: Body and Soul + The Night of the Hunter

Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1925) and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955), photos courtesy of Kino Lorber/Park Circus
It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) with Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) on Sat, Oct 13 at 4:30pm.

By Ashley Clark

Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) are separated by 30 years and the contrasting size of their respective reputations, but this pair of sumptuously dark, thrillingly strange fables nestle nicely together in their own particular sub-genre of film curio history: the wayward preacher feature.

In Laughton’s suspenseful and often dreamlike film, adapted for the screen by James Agee from the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Robert Mitchum incarnates one of the screen’s all-time great villains. Projecting a snaky charm as easy as it is sinister, Mitchum is Harry Powell, a self-declared itinerant preacher who also happens to be a ruthless con artist, manipulative misogynist, and murderer.

The series Beyond the Canon, at large, looks to contrast canonized, widely-recognized classics by white male filmmakers with works by those who’ve traditionally been overlooked by mainstream taste-makers. Yet it’s worth noting that Laughton’s film, while regarded as a stone-cold classic today, had a circuitous route to cinema’s hallowed halls. A commercial and critical disappointment upon initial release, it was to be the only feature ever directed by Laughton, a versatile British-American actor once cited by Daniel Day-Lewis as “probably the greatest film actor who came from that period of time.”

Only over decades did the film’s reputation gather steam, finding admirers of its moral gray areas and admirably daring avant garde visual style. One of its most striking sequences, Powell’s rendition of the story of “L.O.V.E” and “H.A.T.E”—those letters emblazoned on his knuckles—was directly quoted by Spike Lee through his character Radio Raheem’s gold knuckle rings in Do the Right Thing (1989). Three years after Lee’s film, The Night of the Hunter was inducted into the United States Library of Congress National Film Register, and it has since shown up regularly in the higher echelons of various “greatest film” polls conducted by the likes of the American Film Institute, British Film Institute, and august French journal Cahiers du Cinéma.

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955), photo courtesy of Park Circus. 

Alas, a similar level of notoriety has escaped the searing Body and Soul, which was written, produced, and directed by Oscar Micheaux, the indefatigable and prolific godfather of African-American independent cinema. The Illinois-born Micheaux was a key purveyor of "race movies," a term for films which featured all-black or predominantly black casts and were marketed to black audiences, often, of course, in legally segregated areas.

Micheaux’s films, often derided for a perceived technical amateurishness (though I prefer to think of them as operating in a loose, free, semi-jazz idiom), were unafraid to eschew “respectability” and poke at issues of class, race, and religion within black communities. Body and Soul is no different. Featuring the screen debut of the legendary Paul Robeson—actor, singer, lawyer, and political activist—the film has a remarkably similar starting point to The Night of the Hunter. It begins with a newspaper clipping announcing the escape of a prisoner known to adopt the false identity of a traveling preacher; this is the “Reverend” Isaiah Jenkins, played by Robeson. We see Jenkins come to town and, after he links up with a shady speakeasy owner, begins seamlessly inveigling his way into the lives of the locals, Harry Powell-style, to chilling effect. (In a curious twist, Robeson also plays a young scientist, Sylvester, who happens to be Isaiah’s twin brother and love rival!)

I don’t know whether Laughton ever saw Micheaux’s film, but the connections between it and The Night of the Hunter—the complicated, prickly portrayal of religious faith, those monstrous central performances, a chiaroscuro mood of moral turpitude, their narrative unpredictability—are deeply striking. Taken together, they represent two fascinating checkpoints on a continuum of American cinema preoccupied with exploring the grim potential of faith, wielded by the wrong hands, to deceive and distort.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, Oct 13 at 4:30pm

Ashley Clark is senior repertory film programmer.

Mark your calendar for the next Beyond the Canon screening: Sat, Nov 24 at 4:30pm—Wanda (1970) + Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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