Film: Also Showing

The Night of the Hunter Charles Laughton (12) n Blast from the Past Hugh Wilson (12) n Beyond Silence Caroline Link (12) n Tea with Mussolini Franco Zeffirelli (PG)
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The Independent Culture
FIRST REVILED on its release in 1955, The Night of the Hunter has since been embraced, rightly, as one of the greatest of all American films. How to explain its lyrical strangeness? It was a one-off for both its director, Charles Laughton, and its star, Robert Mitchum, whose performance as a deranged evangelist preacher was spookily different from his traditional tough-guy persona. Adapted from a novel by Davis Crubb, the film is pitched somewhere between a Depression fable and a black fairytale, and touches on subjects still at the heart of contemporary cinema: innocence, childhood, murder, sexual repression, and the mystery of good and evil.

Set in Thirties Ohio, it concerns the fate of two children, Pearl, and her older brother John, who are made privy to the whereabouts of the $10,000 their father stole just before his arrest and execution. His feckless widow (Shelley Winters) is then ensnared by the itinerant preacher, Harry Powell, who tries to intimidate her children into telling him where the loot is. When their mother suddenly "disappears", brother and sister escape downriver on a skiff, with Powell in relentless pursuit. And, just as this children's story has a bogeyman, it also has a fairy godmother in the kindly old woman (Lillian Gish) who offers them a home.

The film critic James Agee wrote the script (Laughton apparently rewrote it), though far more notable is Stanley Cortez's eerie black and white photography. There are images here that amaze and horrify - a drowned woman's hair waving in languid unison with the weeds; the preacher, mounted and singing, silhouetted against a horizon; and, the stuff of nightmares this, his hands reaching to grasp the children as he pursues them up the cellar steps. As David Thomson has remarked, one feels relieved not to have seen this film as a child - it could scar you for life.

Yet childhood and its private accommodations are the central current here. "Children are humanity's strongest - they abide," says the old woman. Strongest, and strangest, too. Why does John swoon in distress when troopers arrest Powell? And why does he then refuse to identify the killer in court? There are puzzles within The Night of the Hunter that defy elucidation, as it should be with any great work of art. That it was a failure in its day ensured that Laughton never got to direct another film. Let's be grateful that the only one he did make is a masterpiece.

Blast From The Past puts the idea of Pleasantville in reverse. It's 1962, and convinced that Cuban missiles are about to launch the apocalypse, a paranoid Californian professor (Christopher Walken) rushes his pregnant wife (Sissy Spacek) into a vast bomb shelter stocked with all mod cons and a lifetime's supply of frozen food. When a plane crashes on top of their house, the prof believes it's a nuclear strike and seals the shelter locks for 35 years. Marooned within this hermetic bunker, their son Adam grows up to be a strapping young man with perfect manners, good French and a suave dance technique which he has picked up from his parents' swing records.

He's also completely guileless, so when he emerges blinking into the sunshine of present day LA for the first time in his life, we're all set for another fish-out-of-water comedy. As played by Brendan Fraser, Adam's a puppyish naive in search of a wife, so naturally the first woman he meets is called Eve (Alicia Silverstone), who can't figure out how somebody this handsome can also be so courteous and decent.

Even if the picture slumps in the last third, there are terrific laughs along the way: Adam's saucer-eyed delight with the modern world - colour telly! a computer in the home! - recalls something of Tom Hanks' winning naivety in Big, and his retro-swing hoofing at a trendy nightspot is so ecstatically performed as to be funny and touching all at once. Director Hugh Wilson settles for easy options when things threaten to become complicated, but Brendan Fraser has a wit and wistfulness that keep you on the film's side.

Caroline Link's Beyond Silence is a family drama about a daughter's faltering steps towards independence. Nothing new there - except in the case of Lara (Sylvie Testud) her parents are deaf, and she is their cherished intermediary with the outside world. This can mean helping them negotiate with their bank manager or, rather more cutely, translating her teacher's critical report. Lara's close relationship with her father (Howie Seago) is put to the test when the birthday present of a clarinet from her affectionate but controlling aunt draws her away from home, leaving him more isolated than ever. The last film I saw that combined deafness and musical talent was the excruciating Mr. Holland's Opus, and I feared a similar drift here. Yet Beyond Silence prizes subtlety and restraint over schmaltz, examining the crosscurrents of familial tension and guilt with a beady yet compassionate eye. It deserves every success.

Is Franco Zeffirelli trying to do Merchant-Ivory out of a job? Tea With Mussolini is straight from the school of cream linen and tea on the terrace, with a fearsome trio of English grande dames - Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright - leading an expat clique through the perils of wartime Tuscany. Cher and Lily Tomlin hold up the American end. Zeffirelli doesn't direct so much as preside, while John Mortimer's script is a soft pillow of tweeness and whimsy on which to lay your head. Yes, Florence looks beautiful, but you'd have to be pretty inept to make it look anything else. Difficult to work up a response to a film as complacent as this, though militant boredom worked for me.