Friday, October 25, 2013

Watch This: The Night of the Hunter

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton

There are any number of horror films in the library's collection that would make for potent Halloween viewing, from silent classics like Nosferatu (1922) to modern works such as The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), and Saw (2004).  However, it is outside of traditional horror that we find a villain more frightening than most, Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955).  Masquerading as a preacher in order to marry widows and murder them for their money, Powell is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.  Powell himself feels he is doing God's work by disposing of sinful women (any woman who arouses desire in men or who acts upon her own carnal desires is a sinner in his book), and that God rewards him with the money of his victims.

After being arrested for auto theft, Powell shares a prison cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stashed $10,000 in stolen cash somewhere in his house before his arrest, then made his two children swear to keep the location a secret.  After failing to obtain the location of the money from Harper before his execution, Powell proceeds to charm his way into the life of Harper's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two young children, nine year-old John and four year-old Pearl.  John is suspicious of Powell from the start, and soon realizes that he is after the money.  After Willa overhears Powell trying to force Pearl to reveal the money's location, Powell disposes of her, telling the locals that she ran off.  The children narrowly escape and flee downriver with Powell in pursuit, eventually finding refuge alongside a handful of other orphaned children in the home of the Bible-fearing, strong-willed Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish), whose determination to protect her young wards leads to a tense showdown with Powell.

 The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by the lauded actor Charles Laughton, best known for his portrayals of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).  Working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Laughton crafted a singular film of incredibly striking visual fantasy, a melange of suspense thriller, fairy tale, morality play, expressionistic nightmare, and film noir.  Many scenes provide haunting images that linger in the viewer's mind: Willa's dead body behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of the river, her hair wafting gently with the seaweed; the exaggerated shadow of Powell's silhouette as it is cast on John and Pearl's bedroom wall the night before he first appears in town; Mrs. Cooper leading the children down the sidewalk, looking remarkably like a mother duck with her ducklings trailing close behind.
Mitchum oozes pure menace in a chilling performance, revealing dangerous qualities would also serve him well in his performance as vengeful ex-con Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962).  Note the scene where he stands at the top of the cellar stairs, calling down to the hiding John and Pearl ("Chillll ... dren?!"), then clamors after them up the stairs, lunging with his arms outstretched like Frankenstein's monster.  Mitchum makes Powell scarier than any otherworldly ghoul, a real-life monster bent on the slaughter of innocents to get what he wants.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Watch This: Mean Streets

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Mean Streets (1973)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

"You don't make up for your sins in church.  You do it in the streets."

These words from the opening voiceover of Mean Streets echo through the rest of the film.  While the plot is generally that of a gangster film, following the struggles of Charlie, a young, small-time mobster in New York City's Little Italy, it is Charlie's preoccupation with sin that lies at the heart of the film.  Charlie is Catholic, and wrestles with feelings of guilt as he tries to reconcile his love life and criminal activities with his notions of purity.  In one memorable scene, Charlie seeks penance by holding his hand in the flame of a votive candle before a church altar.  Later in the film, after dancing onstage with a stripper in a local club, he lights a match and holds his finger above the flame.

Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) works as a collector for the local mob boss, who admonishes him for hanging around with the volatile hoodlum Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in a star-making performance).  Johnny Boy owes money to a local loan shark, but Charlie's fondness for his friend causes him to get sucked into Johnny Boy's self-destructive spiral.  Meanwhile, Charlie has become involved with the epileptic Teresa, but must keep their relationship a secret due to his boss's disapproval of her.

De Niro is a standout, infusing Johnny Boy with an endearing clownishness and a reckless, childlike energy that makes it easy to see why Charlie is so easily drawn to him.  The film's best scene, apparently improvised by De Niro and Keitel, finds Johnny Boy explaining his inability to pay his debts by relating a concocted story about a raided poker game.  The expert give-and-take between the two actors in this scene shows why they have since become frequent collaborators.

While it was not the first feature film Martin Scorsese directed, Mean Streets was the film that launched his career.  It has an unpolished rawness that is lacking in his later work, but this only adds to its power.  Even in this early film, many of the signatures of his directorial style are present, including the distinctively stylized camera movement, the use of slow motion, and the popular music soundtrack.  While Scorsese has since become well-known to viewers as a director of gangster films such as Casino, The Departed, and the incomparable Goodfellas, Mean Streets was his first real cinematic foray into this world.  The film's depiction of the day-to-day struggles of low-level hoodlums was relatively novel at the time of its release, and stands in marked contrast to the more opulent Mafia lifestyle depicted in the previous year's The Godfather.

If you're unfamiliar with Scorsese's earlier films, you might also want to check out his feature film debut, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), which is also available on DVD from Reeves Memorial Library.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"The government shut down my homework."

That may not be an excuse that you'll want to use (or accept) as we move into the latter half of the fall semester, but the government shutdown is affecting information resources that we take for granted.

Most government-run websites have not been completely shut down, but almost none are being updated during the government standoff. While few of us at the undergraduate level need up-to-the-second updates, do be aware that most government-run sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food & Drug Administration, and the National Library of Medicine were last updated on September 30th.

Websites that HAVE been shut down include:

  • The U. S. Census Bureau (
  • The United States Department of Agriculture (
  • Portions of the Library of Congress, though not the legislative information sites (
  • ERIC ( --NOTE: The library's ERIC database in EBSCOhost is still searchable. Many hits will still have PDF or HTML full-text that you can download; only links that go out to the full text on the ERIC government website will be affected. Unfortunately, the "full text" checkbox limiter doesn't know how to differentiate between the two, so you will have to look for the PDF/HTML files in the list of results. 

"What can I do?"

  • First of all, try the library's databases. While a small fraction of our content is pulled from government websites (most notably in ERIC and MEDLINE), most of our content will be unaffected. 
  • Try to find information on websites hosted by reliable nonprofit or private-sector organizations, like the Pew Research Center for social sciences data or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the Mayo Clinic for nutritional and medical information. The library's subject-specific research guides can point you to some of these for your subject area. 
  • Most importantly, start your research extra-early. When some of your go-to information sources are unavailable, it may take you a little more time to get your hands on the information that you need. You might need to use interlibrary loan when before you were always able to find the resources you needed online. You may just need time to push beyond your comfort zone of familiar websites to find alternative ones that are still operational.
  • And, of course, contact a librarian if you need help or ideas.