I was pleased to see Robert Morales list in the appendix to Captain America:Truth both the film and prose works of director/writer Samuel Fuller—whose output ranks him among my top five classic Hollywood filmmakers along with Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah and Fritz Lang—as major influences. The rabbit-hole conspiracy scenario that wrapped up the series is a worthy send-up particularly to anti-Nazi suspense thrillers such as Lang’s Ministry of Fear.
My only minor disappointment came from Stan Lee being the only comic creator (besides Baker and Morales themselves) framed on the Bradleys’ wall of heroes when it was Simon & Kirby who created Cap. Maybe it was his pioneering co-creation of the Falcon—along with Gene Colan, with whom he’d flirted with racially conscious storytelling on Daredevil #47 a year earlier—that motivated the decision, although Jack Kirby created the Black Panther before that and developed Sam and Steve’s friend/partnership further in his 70s solo run on Captain America than Lee did.
Through cracking open my copy of The Simon & Kirby Superheroes this morning, I realized noir is yet another genre aesthetic the King might’ve conquered* had family obligations and editorial demands not forced he and Joe Simon to chase the trends of the pre- to mid-war era. The Black Owl stories which open the volume are a masterclass of panel composition, each page littered with Simon’s inky, ominous shadows and Kirby’s restrained (compared to his Cap work mere months later) but characteristically dynamic action. I mean, look at this:
I’m hoping the Simon & Kirby Crime and In the Days of the Mob volumes will scratch this itch further when I get around to them.
Moving on to the final serving on today’s hard-boiled platter: Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, a film which I’m still conflicted on after a few previously unsuccessful struggles to finish it.
It’s got an amazing screenplay . . . which Laughton ensured was realized by seemingly every set piece and camera trick he’d ever thought of until then. There are several distracting transitions—the comical barrel zoom toward Mitchum’s feet, for example, that reveals the kids spying from the cellar window—that add an inappropriate glibness to suspense-driven sequences. But that’s nitpicking.
My real issue is the pacing, which, in a situation I never imagined possible, relies too much on the great Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters to believably carry off.
I get the logic. Despite the impression I garnered from over-the-top, bible-thumping townsfolk at the start, this film is not religious critique: it’s religious allegory. Mitchum is the devil come to town on his high horse and bearing the unholy power of corruption. Otherwise it’s an impossible task to convert Winters’s widowed matron, even in her vulnerable state, into someone so fatally distrustful of her own children at the pace the story demands. And if MItchum’s temptations aren’t supernatural in nature, someone explain what exactly he said to Gloria Castillo at the ice parlor to earn her immediate subservience to him*.*
The approach actually works by the end, when Lillian Gish uses divine intuition to detect MItchum’s deceit when he arrives at her doorstep; I’m just not comfortable with the implication that either a woman as strong and charitable as she wouldn’t be so without her faith or that little Billy Chaplin’s journey isn’t about relearning to trust people but relearning to trust God’s plan after the hellish ordeal he and his sister suffer through here. Maybe if Laughton committed to Chaplin’s point-of-view, the cast of caricatures and his mother’s abrupt face-heel turn could be chalked up to a matter of perspective. Unfortunately, Laughton falls into the trap we all would: giving Mitchum more screen time.***
* though perhaps not if Kirby was writing himself, as he was too big-hearted to spin such bleak narratives without them hinging on some sort of moral lesson. His noir yarns would likely have matched J.-Edgar-Hoover-ass-kissing G-Men films of the previous decade for tameness.
** Her mother literally has to drag her kicking and screaming from the Mitchum’s fateful lynch mob. That can’t just be overactive hormones.
*** The film’s strenuous pace does at least allow for about fifteen perfectly paced (and shot) minutes following Chaplin and his sister’s escape from Mitchum using Birdie’s rowboat. The sequence that mistaken might’ve played out in condensed montage in a modern film breathe long enough to show Chaplin’s nurturing and survival strengths when plot-convenient slip-ups (such as the “I’ll never tell!” scene) cast doubt on the latter.