There are endless cliches out there about the importance of a first impression, but whatever truth they may hold in our everyday lives they go double for film. When there’s only a couple of hours to tell a story and capture its players, an audience’s first chance to meet a character is an asset no filmmaker worth their salt is going to waste. So with that in mind, CHUD is going to take a look through the many decades of cinema to extract the most special of those moments when you are first introduced to a character, be they small moments that speak volumes, or large moments that simply can’t be ignored.
Inevitably it will be the major characters and leads that are granted the grandest of entrances, but don’t be surprised to see a few supporting players and minor individuals get their due, when the impact of their appearance lingers longer than their screentime. Also know that these moments may be chosen for any number of reasons, and the list could never be exhaustive. But here you’ll find moments that make a big splash, say a lot with a little, or we think are just particularly cool.
We hope you enjoy, and can’t wait to hear from you about each and every entry. Don’t spend the effort guessing future choices or declaring what must be included- just enjoy the ride!
The Film… Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director… Charles Laughton
Entering From Stage Left… Robert Mitchum in the role of Reverend Harry Powell.
What Makes it Special… The frankness, the simplicity, and the menace of it all. Especially in 1955.
Robert Mitchum wasn’t always a great actor. He’s been great in some great films and been great in some bad ones, but there are a lot in between where he was coasting on his image and not fueled by some inner fire. Night of the Hunter is without a doubt one of two or three roles that forge his legacy. His film noir work speaks for itself. Night of the Hunter is a revelation, and though his most memorable scenes as the convict masquerading as a man of God happen later in the film the way we meet his character is a huge reason why the character works. After a bizarre intro featuring a prayer followed by the discovery of a woman’s body we meet Harry Powell as he bounces jauntily along in his roadster. It’s an almost cute thing to see: this hulk of a man atop this ancient automobile, and then you add the fact that he’s having a conversation with God.
The first moments of this character tell all we need to know about him. He’s a killer, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A false prophet. There’s no disguise, he’s frankly talking up to the heavens about his plans and about the women he’s ended. In stark black and white seeing this juxtaposition of movie star and menace and spiritual man and murderer was jaw-droppingly haunting in 1955.
It makes everything that follows work so well. This man with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles is one of those cinematic icon we get all too few of. When we do get them it’s not a surprise that they define the legacy of the actor or actress portraying them. This man is a force of nature and that’s evident from the jump. Whatever this man touches will become tainted.
It make you wonder what it would have been like if Mitchum had been given more roles like this and Max Cady. As good as his film noir stuff was (Out of the Past in particular) there was nothing quite like this very large and very dangerous man being able to act in a film he was obviously in love with.
Why it Resonates… It still works today. Charles Laughton was best known as an actor but when he made this film he threw every trick, technique, and style that interested him into it and it all went towards selling Robert Mitchum as pure unfiltered evil. The film was a failure and killed Laughton’s career but it’s one of those very special movies that endures to this day. Hell, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a book on terror and about what made him scared and there’s a whole bunch of ink devoted to Night of the Hunter. A lot of that has to do with how this man enters the film. And film history.
Though we’ve seen so many false prophets in the last few decades the combination of Depression era setting, the energy of the craft on display here, and the juggernaut force that Powell is (and the lengths he’ll go through) capture so many of the touchstones of archetypes that simply connect with us. They tap our fear. They tap our childhood. Our desire to be safe and to trust and the fear of those things being compromises. It just works.
Other Grand Entrances… Not as much about the entrances, though Shelly Winters gets a handsome exit. Also, it’s weird to see Peter Graves in an early role as the man whose cell revelations cause fellow prisoner Harry Powell to look up his family and their hidden fortune upon being freed.