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Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee

In Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, terror and tenderness grapple with each other as profoundly as the words HATE and LOVE when they’re tattooed, one per hand, across the knuckles of the sadistic preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell uses those tattoos to stage the eternal battle of good versus evil as a vivid bout of one-man arm wrestling. But he’s never scarier or funnier than when he’s speaking directly to God, reporting on how well he’s doing his Lord’s bidding when he slaughters widows, then steals their money. The movie details how Powell shrewdly moves in on Willa (Shelley Winters) and controls her, in the process antagonizing her son, John (Billy Chapin), who is old enough to see through him, and almost persuading her small daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), that he can be a father to her.

The film’s intimate observations of the children’s psychology make the suspense almost unbearable. The Night of the Hunter is a Halloween movie; Pauline Kael called it “one of the most frightening movies ever made.” Yet by the end, it’s also suitable for yuletide. John turns out to be a formidable child hero, and indeed, when he and Pearl end up in the home of Lillian Gish’s gnarly matriarch, Miz Rachel Cooper, who embodies a tough-love version of faith, hope, and charity, the movie becomes, pace Tim Burton, something of a Charles Laughton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. This melding of tones—of Grand Guignol and grandeur, boldness and silliness, sociopolitical grit and ardent spirituality—and meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions resulted from the unique collaboration of the onetime director Laughton and his screenwriter: poet, novelist, and critic of genius James Agee.

Agee was known for his ability to pull readers into a youngster’s view of the world, whether he was evoking youthful terror in his analysis of the Halloween scene in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) for his Nation review; or youthful wonder in his English narration for French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s story of a boy and a wild horse, White Mane (1953); or a languid, sensuous childhood night in the prose poem “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” In his harrowing fable “A Mother’s Tale,” he proved himself a master at depicting violence with an intense, detailed style that makes it as moving and profound as it is horrifying. In all his work, he strove to synthesize disparate literary and dramatic forms, fulfilling his youthful dream of combining “what Chekhov did with what Shakespeare did,” moving “from the dim, rather eventless beauty of C. to huge geometric plots such as Lear,” utilizing “a sort of amphibious style—prose that would run into poetry when the occasion demanded poetic expression.” He brought all those gifts and others to bear on The Night of the Hunter.

Much of the movie’s power comes from the 1953 source novel. Author Davis Grubb’s thriller provided the charged dialogue and flow of incidents that ultimately put the preacher face-to-face with Miz Cooper. (Grubb corresponded with Laughton and sent him sketches he had drawn of scenes from the book.) When Agee and Laughton adapted the novel for the screen, they extracted and enhanced its elements of folktale and fable and rearranged them into a form that brought an inspired piece of popular fiction into the realm of genius.

For decades, film historians, relying almost exclusively on interviews rather than written records, trivialized Agee’s contributions to the film and ascribed the final script to Laughton alone. But the discovery of Agee’s first draft for The Night of the Hunter in 2003 dispelled the myth—fostered partly, I suspect, by Agee’s image as “the James Dean of literature”—that he was too alcoholic and self-destructive to be of much use to Laughton. I pored over this draft while I was in the final stages of editing a two-volume collection of Agee’s work for the Library of America, and I remember the excitement I felt, near the beginning, when I read Agee’s description of the preacher reflexively popping open his switchblade as he watches a dancer bump and grind in a burlesque house, the knife tearing at his pants pocket. It was a pure Agee invention. (In the finished film, the knife rips through his coat pocket, not his pants.) And I remember, too, the satisfaction I felt, near the end, when I read Miz Cooper’s response to the sexual recklessness of a foolish adolescent named Ruby: “You was lookin’ for love, poor child, the only foolish way you knowed how”—another original bit that ended up only slightly altered in the movie.

Yes, Agee’s draft was overlong and overelaborate, but it was unmistakably the basis for the final movie, from its structure to its characterizations, as Jeffrey Couchman has since demonstrated brilliantly in his essential “The Night of the Hunter”: A Biography of a Film. Couchman also points out that Agee worked with Laughton on revisions for five weeks, and, until his death, maintained a sympathetic bond with the director. The two collaborated as individualistic screenwriters and strong directors often do—think of, say, Robert Towne and Roman Polanski on Chinatown, but without the knock-down, drag-out battles. One can never say precisely who contributes what to such collaborations. (That’s why I decided the right thing to do for the Agee collection was to print the script that Laughton polished, pruned, and tweaked.) What is clear is how much Agee and Laughton had in common besides a firm grasp of the original material. They both sought to revive the fearless visual inventiveness of D. W. Griffith while filling the film with the changeable sounds of hymns and lullabies and pungent talk.

You can see Agee’s impact on the movie everywhere, whether in the pratfalls and cliff-hanging climaxes straight out of silent films or in the way characters surprise you with their emotional complexity. (Warm, generous Willa learns that Powell is after her money but believes he’ll be her salvation anyway. That’s what gives her tragic stature.) This movie captures the extremities of its characters in daring, original bits of action, such as Powell’s popping that switchblade during the show, or that likable character Uncle Birdie’s retreating to the bottle just when Pearl and John need him most. These jolting acts are as full of sadness, humor, and meaning as any in Agee’s fiction—I think of the punch a “fine young boy” throws at a homosexual boardinghouse owner in “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap.” (Along with “Death in the Desert,” it’s one of two remarkable short stories Agee wrote for the Harvard Advocate in the early 1930s; critic Clive James thought they alone were enough to rank him with the great writers of the twentieth century.) The film contains subtleties within explicit commentaries, as Agee’s original work so often does. The narrative may pound home Willa’s inadequate protection of her children, but the camera dotes on this harried mother’s mingling of maternal affection and wariness, the way Agee and photographer Walker Evans did in their nonfiction Depression masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Throughout his work, not just in The Night of the Hunter, Agee saw things through a glass darkly and lightly. In his criticism, he often demanded, in his words, “an implacable physical and psychological realism,” but he also believed in “squeezing the poetical and symbolic power out of the final intensities of this realism,” which he called “the essence of most good cinema.” The perfect example of this in The Night of the Hunter comes when John and Pearl escape death in their father’s old skiff, which whirls them down-current on the Ohio River. They enter a gorgeous natural universe. But they can never quite become a part of it. Laughton and Agee use verbal and visual means to capture Grubb’s depiction of the children as “fallen angels, or woodland elves suddenly banished from the Court of the Gods of Moonlight and of faery meadows. They blew along like brown leaves on the wind.” Near the start of the sequence, Pearl’s haunting, makeshift song—“Once upon a time, there was a pretty fly, and he had a wife, this pretty fly, and one day she flew away, and then one night his pretty fly children flew away, too, into the sky, into the moon”—bonds with the luminous imagery and wraps the skiff in an audiovisual cocoon. But when you see rabbits and a huge frog quivering in close-up as the skiff drifts by, the compositions emphasize their distance from Pearl and John. These kids are in this world, not of it. There is no Eden in this movie, only Miz Cooper’s oasis of love and sanity. In 1948, Agee wrote the narration for The Quiet One, a documentary about an alienated Harlem boy who responds to treatment at a progressive school; it’s not too big a stretch to see the Wyltwick School, in Agee’s canon, as a precursor to Miz Cooper’s house. “That’s the most we can hope to do here at Wyltwick,” the narrator says, “for any of the boys who lie sleeping here: to clear away some of the great harm they suffered in the difficult world they came from; to make them a little better able to live usefully and generously in that world; a little better able to care for the children they will have than their parents were to care for them; lest the generations of those maimed in childhood, each making the next in his own image, create upon the darkness, like mirrors locked face-to-face, an infinite corridor of despair.”

Lillian Ross’s classic inside-Hollywood book Picture contains a notorious anecdote about Agee’s collaboration with John Huston on The African Queen that has often been used to paint the writer as cinematically naive. Ross observes: “Agee was saying, as Huston paced in small circles, that the trip the river captain, Humphrey Bogart, and the missionary’s sister, Katharine Hepburn, would make together down the river on the captain’s boat in The African Queen could symbolize the act of love.” Ross gives Huston a devastating comeback: “‘Oh Christ, Jim,’ Huston said, ‘tell me something I can understand. This isn’t like a novel. This is a screenplay. You’ve got to demonstrate everything, Jim. People on the screen are gods and goddesses. We know all about them. Their habits. Their caprices. But we can’t touch them. They’re not real. They stand for something rather than being something. They’re symbols. You can’t have symbolism within symbolism, Jim.’” Yet in The African Queen, the trip down the river—packed with excitement and desire—does symbolize the act of love, just as the trip downriver in The Night of the Hunter symbolizes man’s hunger for unspoiled wilderness or a natural paradise. One of Agee’s gifts to his directors was his ability to plant heart- and mind-expanding epiphanies within larger-than-life characters. He could create symbolism within symbolism—or maybe have his symbolism and eat it too. Agee influenced his collaborators in mysterious ways, but his influence was unmistakable.

Agee pulled off realistic-metaphoric feats in many media, whether with a memory-suffused novel like The Morning Watch, a multipart TV drama like Abraham Lincoln, a movie script like The African Queen, or topical essays, reportage, and criticism for magazines ranging from Fortune and Time to Life and the Nation. He had an almost alarming versatility. Yet a personal note of urgency, stemming from the conflicts and traumas of his childhood, gave even his most virtuosic work an enormous emotional vitality. James Rufus Agee was born to Laura Tyler Agee and Hugh James Agee (known as Jay) on November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Tylers were a comfortable, educated Knoxville clan. The Agee stock had its roots in the mountains north of town. The grown writer often attempted to marry the earthy truths he associated with the Agees to the refined temperament of the Tylers. And his mother’s devout Anglo-Catholicism fed his own Christian-anarchist sensibility, inspiring him to evoke the spiritual dimensions of the physical universe. On May 16, 1916, when Jay Agee was en route to Knoxville from a visit to his own ailing father, his car tipped over an embankment. He died instantly. James Agee was six years old; he wrestled with his father’s death until his own, exactly thirty-nine years later. The impact of the loss of a father haunts both The Night of the Hunter and the autobiographical A Death in the Family, for which he won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

But the Agee work most often compared with The Night of the Hunter is his unruly nonfiction masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which grew out of a Fortune assignment to chronicle the struggle of sharecroppers to survive in the depths of the Depression. The Night of the Hunter vignette in which John and Pearl join a small stream of homeless children begging for boiled potatoes from a weary farm lady would have fit right in to Famous Men; and more generally, the two share a dual aura of despair and transcendence. Still, it may be even more fruitful to compare Agee’s script for The Night of the Hunter, written in 1954, with a far more compact and less well-known accomplishment: that brief fictional masterpiece “A Mother’s Tale,” published in Harper’s Bazaar just two years before.

The Night of the Hunter opens with the face of Lillian Gish set against the starry heavens. Miz Rachel Cooper reminds her youthful charges—seen as a constellation of children’s faces—about the Bible tales and morals that she’s taught them. She concludes with “Ye shall know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” The movie ends on Christmas Day, after Miz Cooper has saved Pearl and John. “My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot,” she says, straight to the camera. Her final line is “They abide and they endure.”

“A Mother’s Tale” has a similarly homiletic frame and pays tribute to another kind matriarch, a cow who considers herself more of a “modern” mother than Miz Cooper. This story has rarely received much attention, but Dwight Macdonald called it “the only allegory of the sickness of our age, from the Nazi death camps to our own Vietnam bombings, that can stand comparison with Kafka, partly because it is clearly not influenced by Kafka.” It centers on cattle being herded onto trains and led to slaughter; when you read it, you can’t help thinking of the humans who were hauled away in cattle cars during the Holocaust. But the story isn’t allegorical in any simple or easy way. It really is a mother’s tale. Agee catches us up in a mother cow’s plight, putting us in her consciousness as she considers how to tell her son and other calves about the world beyond their field without arousing risky curiosity or conveying the wrong lessons. She wants to horrify them with the revelation that Man breeds stock just to butcher them, and to persuade them that it takes courage and fortitude to live out a placid existence on the range—so they won’t be tempted to run into the cars with the herd. But the story takes hold of her. She can’t help evoking the full “heroism and the terror of two sublime Beings”: the only steer who returned, flayed and critically wounded—“The One Who Came Back”—and the executioner at the slaughterhouse, “The Man With The Hammer.” She repeats the dying words of The One Who Came Back: “Never be taken. Never be driven. Let those who can, kill Man. Let those who cannot, avoid Him”—and, even more frightening, “Kill the yearlings. Kill the calves. So long as Man holds dominion over us, bear no young.”

Just as, during the opening credits of The Night of the Hunter, a singer assures children that “fear is only a dream,” near the end of “A Mother’s Tale,” the cow assures the calves that her story is “just an old, old legend . . . We use it to frighten children with.” But in both these masterworks, the scariness is real. Happily, so are the strength and innocence of the young. The mother’s own son silently vows to become a greater hero than The One Who Came Back, to ram The Man With The Hammer and “put Him and His Hammer out of the way forever.” The youngest calf nuzzles up to her, now that “none of the big ones would hear and make fun of him,” and asks, “What’s a train?”

Near the end of his life, Agee switched off between working on the novel of his early youth in Knoxville, which became A Death in the Family, and more fantastic fictional flights, like “A Mother’s Tale” and The Night of the Hunter. At age forty-five, while riding in a New York City taxicab, he suffered a heart attack and died. His longtime friend and mentor Father James Flye recovered one last, unmailed letter from him detailing a movie idea—a parable about the humiliation of elephants in human civilization. God calls the elephants his chosen people and charges them to convert human barbarians by their example of faithfulness and goodness. But their life with humans is built on mortification. The grand finale comes when George Balanchine assembles an elephant corps and directs them in a Stravinsky-based ballet. In Agee’s simultaneously sardonic and poignant account, “They do very nicely; hardly a mistake. But all through the performance, people roar with joy at their clumsiness, and their dutifulness. The elephants are deeply ashamed. Later that night, the wisest of them, extending his trunk, lifts up a dying cigar butt, and drops it in fresh straw. All thirty-six elephants die in the fire. Their huge souls, light as clouds, settle like doves, in the great secret cemetery back in Africa—And perhaps God speaks, tenderly, again: Perhaps saying: ‘The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding . . .’ etc.”

By the time Agee’s heart gave out, few American writers knew more about the quality of life and death in the mid-twentieth-century or conveyed more potently a belief that art could purify and transcend it. The next time readers or audiences saw Agee’s name, it was writ among the stars in The Night of the Hunter.

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