With all these brand new films coming to DVD, there’s never been a better time to pop some corn, turn the lights down, and watch some movies…from the 1950s.
Yes, ignoring all the coolest and hippest new releases, I recently watched two black and white Hollywood classics, one with a moving ensemble cast figuring out fame and love and another with an all-time terrifying performance.
All About Eve (1950) tells a familiar story, one that could be told in any decade since its release, including our own. Bette Davis plays a stage actress, Margo, who receives the attention of a die-hard fan – the titular Eve, played by Anne Baxter. As a fan of all of Margo’s stage productions, Eve eagerly waits outside the back of the theater, hoping for a chance to meet her idol. When the two finally do cross paths, Margo finds a kindred spirit in the young fan, who quickly joins her entourage as an assistant.
But of course, Eve isn’t as simple as that – she wants to be an actress, and from their meeting until the end of the film, the lives of Margo and Eve merge, split, and change dramatically (pun intended). See, Margo is fully aware that she’s aging in a world that (unjustly) has little use for an older actress, and as Eve’s ambitions become clear, she finds herself at a crossroads of her career and life.
Davis’ performance is really astounding: equally sharp and sad, but never veering into melodrama, never into cliché. And the depth of her performance is brought out by the ensemble cast. Her dear friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), offers sensible but snarky advice; her boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe, Davis’ real-life husband (at the time)), remains her love and her rock, amid all the chaos. Around them orbit a smattering of New York and Hollywood types, friendly and otherwise, who make this bygone era feel as wildly alive as any contemporary film.
The structure of the film is narrated by these characters, each giving their perspective as the tale is woven. Even Eve evolves through the film, from fan to friend to foe. Yet, even she is treated fairly by the film, and we understand her by the closing. That’s perhaps what is most timeless and remarkable here: All About Eve shows these characters as people, in as fair a light as any deserve.
In Night of the Hunter (1955), the light shines a bit more dimly on its cast, with a story as shockingly dark as the era might permit. This is not one for the kiddos (though there’s nothing visually or verbally explicit).
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a depression-era traveling minister, who is quick to spin a yarn and quicker to pick a pocket. Based on a real story (as much as that means), Powell finds himself in jail for a little bit of grand theft auto and bunks with a condemned bank robber, Harper. Before his arrest and trial, Harper hid the stolen $10,000, entrusting its secret location to his young children. And Powell, being a man of opportunity, wants that money, even if Harper won’t give it up.
After Harper’s execution and Powell’s release, the fake minister finds the dead man’s town and his widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). So far, the film has been a series of disconnected and brief scenes. But this meeting is where the film reaches its central conflict: an amoral man pretending to be decent, a downtrodden family needing a savior, and $10,000 to be found. I won’t spoil how it unfolds beyond this point, but I would say Night of the Hunter becomes as surprising, terrifying, and visually striking as any of today’s thrillers. (I mean, Powell often soliloquys with his pocket knife, as if it were Yorick’s skull, if that’s any indication.)
This rising horror is owed almost entirely to Mitchum, who plays the minister Powell in the most slimy, threatening, and unpredictable way. It’s not unlike Robin Williams’ performance in One Hour Photo, or Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, where the actor seems willing to go as far as the script allows and then further. Though this film is currently sixty-seven years old, I still had no idea what would happen, or how it would happen, and when it all did finally happen, I was a bit shaken.
So there you go – two options for a classic film night. Both of these are foundational films, inspiring dozens of movies in the coming decades, but couldn’t be more different and wonderful to watch, even a lifetime after their original release.
All About Eve and Night of the Hunter are available on DVD from HCLS.
Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.