The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powers

Harry Powers (Cornelius O. Pierson)

On the 20th September 1931 Harry Powers was hurriedly taken by police to Moundsville State Penitentiary for his own safety. A large and angry crowd had gathered outside the small County Jail demanding Powers be handed over to them, so they could dispense mob justice by lynching him in the streets. The local Fire Department set their water hoses upon the crowd in an attempt to disperse them, but it would take the engagement of tear gas before the authorities could gain control of the situation.  

Moundsville State Penitentiary, West Virginia was an imposing gothic style building that would not go a miss in a Stephen King novel.  On March 18, 1932, Harry Powers was taken to its scaffolds. Upon his arrival he was offered the opportunity to make a last statement, but declined. A cap was placed over his head and at 9:00 am the guard pushed the button. Powers dropped through the trap door and 11 minutes later he was pronounced dead.

 

Cornelius O. Pierson

Operating under the alias Cornelius O. Pierson, Harry Powers wrote a succession of letters to Asta Eicher who was a recently widowed mother of 3 children. After a brief romance Powers took Eicher on a trip leaving her 3 children with a friend, Elizabeth Abernathy. Shortly afterwards Abernathy received a letter advising her that Powers would be coming to pick the children up to join their mother. Powers then made contact with Dorothy Lemke, who lived in Masschuetts and was seeking love through a lonely hearts advert.  Asta Eicher, her 3 children and Dorothy Lemke all disappeared with no explanation.

Police investigating their disappearances became suspicious when the name Cornelius O. Pierson appeared as one of the last known contacts of Asta Eicher. The police quickly established there was no one registered under the name of Cornelius Pierson, but his description matched that of Harry Powers who was arrested and a search warrant was issued for his home.  Blood, clothing, hair and a burned bankbook where all found and following the excavation of freshly filled ditches the bodies of Asta Eicher, her children and Dorothy Lemke were uncovered. Postal records later indicated that Powers had opened up his own lonely hearts ad using his alias Cornelius O. Pierson. Replies to his advertisement were pouring in at a rate of 10 to 20 letters per day. Love letters were also discovered on the property addressed to several women, whom he intended to kill and steal their money.

Romance, musicals and mellow dramas

The 1950s are synonymous with films featuring the likes of James Dean, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The majority of these films tended to be musicals, clean cut American westerns, mellow dramas and comic romances. Whilst films presenting more challenging narratives were starting to emerge like Rebel Without a Cause these films were rare due to the emergence of TV. The big film studios did not want to potentially disturb or frighten away their family audience who also brought vast amounts of  popcorn, ice-cream and soda drinks during the cinema visits.

Strange Author 

The author Davis Grubb had a distinct characteristic of only being able to write whilst on a train. An extreme recluse, refusing to travel in cars and seldom spoke to anybody.  Using the case of Harry Powers, Grubb in 1953 wrote The Night of the Hunter.  In the book Grubb explores murder, social corruption, misogyny, domestic violence, the hypnotic force of religion, family breakdown, alienation, poverty and child cruelty. The book’s main character (Harry Powers), who after serving a sentence for stealing a car presents himself to the outside world as a prison chaplain. Using information he discovered in prison from his soon to be executed cellmate the “Reverend” Powell cons his executed cellmate’s widow into marrying him with the hope that her children will tell Powers where their father hid the $10,000 from his last bank robbery. After killing their mother Powell embarks on a hunt for the children.

NightofthehunterposterIn 1955, the book was made into a film. Remaining true to the narrative of the book the plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer Harry Powers, superbly played by Robert Mitchum. The director of the film was no other than the legendary actor Charles Laughton. The lead role of Powers was initially earmarked for Laurence Olivier, but the studios were not eager to associate the clean Olivier image with the film. When approached by Laughton to play Powers, Mitchum is reported to have replied, “If you are really going to make a movie about a wife murdering, child stalking manic of a preacher, doing his evil deeds in God’s name, them count me in.”  

The author of the book Davis Grubb was also an accomplished artist who drew sketches of the characters he would write about. Learning of this Charles Laughton kept in contact with Grubb and repeatedly asked him to send visualisations of facial expressions he had in mind when writing the book. Grubb obliged by sending over 100 pen and ink drawings during the making of the film. This process helped contribute towards the stark realism and bold expressionism throughout the film.

I first came across The Night of the Hunter in the mid 1970s one Saturday evening in my teenage years. Having seen the name Robert Mitchum listed in the TV schedule I decided to tune in and was expecting a run of the mill western. The opening sequence quickly dispelled that notion as Miss Cooper’s (the savour of orphans in the film) disembodied head narrates from a heavenly night sky, “Beware of false prophets…”  Robert Mitchum is then introduced singing hymns as he travels in search of his victim. Tortured by his hatred of women Mitchum’s character carries a switchblade pocket knife, which he considers his holy sword.

The murder of the Shelley Winters character is reminisce of a vintage black and white silent movie and shortly afterwards  the children hiding in the cellar of the family home whilst Mitchum sits outside calming singing to the children inside before he starts to terrorise them is particularly unnerving. As the children make their escape on a boat downriver Mitchum pursues them on horse bank.  Upon seeing the silhouette of the murderer on the ridge of the hill cast by the moonlight one of the children chillingly remarks, “Don’t he ever sleep?”  After the films first private screening with only  Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory (producer) present both sat in complete silence as the last of the film flickered through the reel. They had not expected the film to have been so odd. Gregory turned to Laughton (who was a fragile soul at the best of times) and said, “Charles they’re not going to know how to sell this picture and I think we are going to be in trouble.” He was right. The Night of the Hunter was not a commercial success upon release and Laughton fell into deep depression. Whilst he had several film projects lined up Laughton would never direct another film.

In many respects the film has not faired well with time. Its dialogue, script, acting and editing through today’s eyes may seem clumsy and even corny,  but the authentic innovation and atmospheric feel the film presents has influenced many film makers Spike Lee, The Cohen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have all tipped their hats to The Night of the Hunter as a major influence on their craft. Whilst dated this highly original and brilliant good-and-evil parable, with “good” represented by a couple of farm kids and a pious old lady, and “evil” literally in the hands of a posturing psychopath is rightly considered a classic.

 

Oh bondage up yours!

This girl is no fool

This women is nobody’s fool

“Biblically chauvinistic” is how the Rolling Stone magazine described the James Brown 1966 record “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” As a record it certainly takes some beating when promoting a stereotype. A stereotype, which has been continuously reinforced throughout the music business since its conception.

Whilst the mainstream charts maybe dominated by female artists research constantly reveals that women working in the music business earn far less than their male counterparts – a staggering 47% of women in the music business earn less then £10,000 per year.

It is a business that is dominated by male executives who control its means of production, marketing and recording output. Recording artist Lily Allen recently observed, “You will also notice of the big successful female artists, there is always a ‘man behind the woman’ piece. If it’s Beyoncé, it’s Jay Z. If it’s Adele, it’s Paul Epworth. Me? It was Mark Ronson and the same with Amy Winehouse.”  These attitudes prevail throughout the music business right down to the basement end of manufactured pop. The banality of Miley Cyrus ‘tweaking’ caused a media stir, which was possibly related to Cyrus’s history as a child star for the Disney Corporation. Whilst Cyrus’s performance might be seen as silly and tedious the fact is Iggy Pop has been ‘twerking’ for 40 years, including the odd penis exposure as well as regularly humping his amplifiers on stage – yet he is considered a rock god.

There is something very disturbing about a popular culture that increasingly portrays women as disposable commodities frequently being hunted down by a serial killer or subjected to the creepy attention of a male artist who is acting like a potential candidate for inclusion on the sex offenders register. Although given the recent spate of celebrities facing sexual assault charges in the UK they may not be acting. Equally repugnant are those fellow men who shout “politically correctness has gone mad” every time these issues are raised. Lets be honest if you are the type of tool who enjoys women being portrayed in this way then it is highly unlikely you have read this far into this blog and you are properly jerking off to that misogynist Robin Thicke video.

“Ignore it” you may say after all there is an off button I can push  Well I did, but ignoring it does not make it a right. Switching off a TV does not mean switching off your brain and that is the real choice here. I am not for one minute advocating censorship far from it. In my view those who produce this material should be exposed to additional taxation. The revenues generated should be earmarked for support services for women who become victims of male violence. If a sovereign country was inflicting such harm on another country surely we would be expecting intervention, possibly economic sanctions.

Those women who have stood up, challenged and turned the tables on the status quo have faced ridicule or worse. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actress, author and philanthropist Dolly Parton has throughout her career been the subject of ridicule from taunts of trailer trash, cheap, dumb blonde and least we forget the breast obsession. Web sites are dedicated  to crude jokes about Parton.  Realising these circumstances Dolly Parton played the card of self parody as well as deploying her very clever business brain. This has enabled her to amass a financial fortune and make music that she wants to make.  This attitude towards women is not a modern phenomena, which as  been cooked up by dead beat rappers with their pathetic lyrics of ‘hoes and bitches.’

holiday

Billie Holliday – used and abused

The harrowing demise of Billie Holliday in the 1950s is a prime example. Most media stories concerning Holliday’s torturous death tend to focus on the sexual violence and illicit substances. What is often overlooked is that in her final years Holliday was swindled out of her earnings and died with $0.70 in the bank.  As an incredibly gifted, yet troubled artist Holliday was hounded to the very end. Whilst dying police raided her hospital room and placed her under arrest until she passed away on 17th July 1959. She was 44 years old.

The magnificent Nina Simone became the catalyst for change in the 1960s. Strong, intelligent, outspoken and a versatile musician she became a role model for musicians (female and male). Simone started playing the piano at 3 years old and by the age of 10 she was perfuming piano recital in the town library. Like Holliday she was ripped off by the record companies. She saw very little money from her first record, the top 20 hit of “I Loves You Porgy.” Simone always characterised record companies as “pirates.”   

Over the coming decades Simone took increased control over her career and destiny as an artist, which not only provided financial rewards but enabled increased creative freedom. At the time this was unparalleled for both a female and Black artist.  The song Mississippi Goddamn, which she released in 1964 was written by Simone after the murder of Medgar Evers. Although the song contains a jolly rhythm it is a scathing anti-racist tour de force.  Towards the end of her life Simone became increasingly erratic with legendary mood swings. In 1985 she fired a gun at a record executive whom she considered was stealing her royalties claiming that she tried to kill him, “but missed.”

The 1960s produced many iconic female artists Dusty Springfield, Nico (Velvet Underground) Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin for example. It is a decade that increasingly witnessed the use of  ‘tabloid sensationalism’ as a weapon against women. Singer, songwriter and actress Marion Faithfull was subjected to sordid and untrue media reports in 1967 concerning her sexual relationship with Mick Jagger. Whilst the headlines and speculation did little to hinder Jagger’s career. In fact the stories further enhanced his bad boy reputation, but for Faithfull her career was badly damaged. 27 years later Faithfull observed, “It destroyed me, a  woman in that situation becomes a slut.” Before Beyonce, there was Diana Ross (formerly of The Supremes).

The Supremes were a product of Barry Gordy’s Motown conveyor belt of popular hits during the 60s and 70s. Gordy was the original Simon Cowell with the gift of identifying and bringing together pop talent, along with tightly controlling and carefully managing their public image. Whilst Ross and Gordy were romantically entwined for Gordy it quickly became a case of biting off more than you could chew syndrome when it came to Diana Ross.

Whilst The Supremes were on a UK tour in the 1960s Gordy insisted The Supremes perform a version of Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.” Gordy believed that such a performance would enable The Supremes to access a slot on a mainstream UK television programme. Ross refused outright. “I could not explain anything that made sense to her,” Gordy said. “She refused to do it completely.” That’s when Gordy realised, “if she didn’t do it, I knew I could not manage them.” Ross went on to became one of the biggest selling female solo artists in music history.

Joni Mitchell produced and released her seminal Blue album in the early 70s whilst at the same time Jazz drummer Karen Carpenter was persuaded to move centre stage and sing for the brother/sister duo the Carpenters. It may have took until 1979 for Suzi Quatro to score a hit in her country of birth (USA), but Quatro was a constant presence throughout the 70s in the UK charts. Quatro’s trademark leather jacket, jeans, bass playing leadership and pop-rock anthems presented an altogether more edgy imagine that had a significant influence and impact. An influence that has sadly been underestimated given for many young people Suzi Quatro was the first female artists who was seen to be the leader of pop-rock group on mainstream TV. By the mid 70s Kate Bush and Patti Smith emerged. Two diametrically opposed artist who commanded respect through their craft. Smith went on to release what many still consider to be one of the most quintessential and influential rock album’s of all time ‘Horses.’  

1975 also saw the release of the electro pop ‘Love to Love You Baby’ by Donna Summer that pounded the dance floors of every credible disco. The song, which featured Summer moaning and groaning as if in the raptures of an organism would cause controversy around the world. It also presented the artist in a highly sexual charged way that would take Summer years to shake off. The song and its producers eventually left Summer feeling like she had no control over her life and went on to suffer with bouts of depression and insomnia. Summer would later become a born-again Christian and sue the producers of the record. After the legal settlement Summer decided to exclude “Love to Love You Baby” from her concert playlists and did not perform it until 25 years later.

As the 1970s were drawing to a close there was something quite different about the female artists who were emerging outside the mainstream. Whilst the recording output varied according to taste. The confidence and attitude of the female artists was not in dispute. Operating within an increasingly political environment a whole bunch of strong, independent, intelligent and often conformational female artists were playing a leading roll in the rock scene.  It was a time when Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Fay Fife (The Rezillos), Gaye Advert (The Adverts), Debbie Harry (Blondie), The Slits, Pauline Murray (Penetration),  Tina Weymouth,(Talking Heads), Joan Jett (The Runaways) and the glorious Poly Styrene (X Ray Spex) to name a few took a male dominated world and shook it by the throat. A quick search on Google for Penetration performing ‘Don’t Dictate’ live will emphasis the point as Pauline Murray tackles men in the audience head on. It was another song from this period, which had a greater influence on me personally.

Released in 1977 “Oh bondage up yours” was the debut single by X Ray Spex.  Polly Styrene was the bands lead singer and main songwriter who described the song, “as a call for liberation. It was saying: ‘Bondage—forget it! I’m not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses.’ It has that line in it: ‘Chain smoke, chain gang, I consume you all’: you are tied to these activities for someone else’s profit.” 

As I grow older and start to see the world more holistically I can often look back at key moments when a stake was placed in the shifting sands of my life. These stakes are important because they create a focus point when somethings clicked. When I get a cold chill after being exposed to yet another pile of misogynist crap by a retarded hunk in plastic bling rubbing his small codpiece against a scantly dressed women. I can point back to buying the original 12″ vinyl version of “Oh bondage up yours” in 1977.

Every cause has a counter effect and what had been achieved in the 1970s was to be challenged throughout the 1980s free for all and sod thy neighbour attitude. Samantha Fox’s was 16 years old when her mother submitted several photographs of her daughter in lingerie to a Sunday tabloid newspaper competition (Girl of the Year amateur modelling contest). By the 198os Samantha Fox was a popular topless glamour model in a daily tabloid. In 1986 Fox choose to take up a new career as a pop star. Her first release was the tacky ‘Touch Me (I Want Your Body)’ that reached No. 1 in seventeen different countries. She went on to sell more than 30 millions albums and co-wrote the song “Dreams” for girl group All Saints’s 2000 album, Saints & Sinners. Although she was credited as “Karen Wilkin” because the group refused to record the song if Fox’s real name was used. In 1984 Sheena Eastern had a hit with a Prince written song ‘Sugar Walls’ a pseudonym for Eastern’s vagina.  By the close of the 80s Cher was to be seen cavorting around a battleship in a fishnet body stocking rattling out the hideous ‘If I could turn back time.’  Amongst this drivel there were occasional rays of sunshine from the likes of Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and the Sugarcubes whose lead singer Bjork was to became one of the most original and innovative female recording artists of all time.

2778_Bjork_photo_1

Thank god for Bjork

As with most cases in life it is not those at the vanguard who reap the rewards of their struggles. Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Courtney Love (Hole), PJ Harvey, Riot Grrrl, Sleater-Kinney, Grace Jones, Beth Ditto (Gossip), Poison Ivy Rorschach (The Cramps) and the stunning Skin (Skunk Anansie) were to find their journeys just that little bit more easier because of the women who had gone before. In turn this made for a more creative and fertile music scene for the rest of us to enjoy. It would of be interesting to hear the views of these female artist regarding female artists in the mainstream pop world today. I can only guess that for many it will be a case of raised eyebrows and recognition that syrup manufactured girl pop groups will always have a place.

I struggle to envisage many will sign up to the ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls call to arms, “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.”  In truth their struggle and achievements will seldom be recognised in the mainstream, because the mainstream needs to be controlled and manipulated from above. The advent of technologies has in many ways released the creative artist to pursue their particular path, but success on a scale that will enable economic independence remains a long way off for many female artists.  As a father of 3 daughters it is with great relief that when foraging around Bandcamp I have discovered such an amazing range of female artists who are producing some truly magnificent material. To name a few:

xray

 

Stanley’s Magical Rose

2nd week May 2012Silence. The fragility of stillness is like numb and paralysed limbs void of energy, redundant. Disturbed only by the rhythm of breathing. Life’s ever-decreasing cycle, unachieved ambitions. Closed eyes and memory flickered dreams projected like old camera films on stained wood chip walls. The taught rituals of work from the first day to first weeks pay. Good days, the bad days and the in-between days, but always the grind. Homemade sandwiches, canteen-banter. Dirt pitted hands, stewed tea, page 3 and practical jokes. Dust in the hot foundry that told no lies and hid no secrets. Shudders and cries of sweat covered men as splashes from molting metal discovered unprotected skin. The cranking cogs that churn day in and day out. Sulfated sands. Weakened lungs are wheezing accidental poetry. Now speeches are made, and words evaporate from unintended lips. A £250.00 gift voucher. A shake of hands. A promise of continued friendships followed by a thoughtful,“ goodbye.”

Awaken. The first sense is confirmation of surrounds. Open eyes. Traffic was passing without intent. A chilly June morning beckons as the 6 am alarm sounds. The first domino of the day falls for Stanley, and the momentum starts anew. A routine of acceptances had to be maintained. A deceiving Sunbeam has penetrated the gaps of his faded paisley curtains. Across the polka dot duvet, it searches up the chimney breast, glancing the photograph of his parents who offer warmth in returning judgments.

The bookshelves constructed while listening to a transistor radio and interruptions from his mother with offers of tea,  one sugar, tuna fish sandwiches, and a custard cream biscuit. The shelves crammed with diaries, poetry books, autobiographies, George Orwell novels, photograph albums and the occasional treasure discovered in second-hand bookshops. A shower and piss down the plughole. Watching the yellow whirlpool dilute and disappear.

Dressed, tea, two pieces of toast. Stanley stands by the front door, pauses, inhales a profound conscious breath, turns the lock, and opens the door and steps outside. The housing estate is quiet. It’s young inhabitants whose lives seem full of noise and disputes sleep, recharging their batteries like the mobile phones they possess on pay as you go contracts with unlimited texts. Stanley stands motionless. The bus is late. The glass panels of the shelter lay shattered and, like the fragmented lives, he witnesses on most days nobody was keen to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. Warm breath lifts like clouds. The shattered glass grates under his feet as he steps onto the bus. He nods to the driver who nods back; no words are exchanged, none is necessary, and the bus pass is presented.

Faraway places were to remain distant places for Stanley. Although he envied those who travelled he was not bitter, he celebrated their fortune and sought any opportunity to find travellers to discuss their experiences. Often disappointed with tales of cheap alcohol, crowded beaches, and industrialised hotels. Since his redundancy from work five years ago Stanley had been volunteering three days a week at a local charity bookshop. The shop had become his universe where he learned and explored faraway cultures from abandoned books delivered to the stores from house clearances after an elderly death.

2nd week in May 2012, It was 3 years ago when cleaning old stock from the dark basement that he came across a book entitled ‘Physic Transformational Meditation, as Practiced by the North Korean Talesi Monks.’ Little is known of the Talesi Monks, and it was the only book Stanley discovered on the subject after extensive searches of local libraries, the Internet and retail bookshops.

Feared by their Japanese rulers in the early 1900s and the secretive North Korean regime all Talesi monasteries had been systematically destroyed, their practices outlawed, old monks sent to isolation camps and the separated young to state re-education programmes. The book brought instant warmth to his hands when he picked it up, which had encouraged him to set it aside. Upon opening the book, he discovered a small white-foiled package, which was acting as a bookmark for the section entitled ‘Teaki the practice of dreaming and dying.’

The little white-foiled packet contained a single seed. An individual child Stanley was born to parents who were much older than any of his peers. By 15, he became the part-time carer for his aging parents. His parents had both died while Stanley was in his 50s. Now he found himself at 71 years old living alone in the house where he was born, brought up and no doubt one day would die in. Reflecting on his circumstances, he knew his choices, which he had made without regret.

To avoid the constant disputes between neighbours, children beavering away like a colony of worker ants intent on dismantling the housing estate brick by brick and the regular intrusion of police raids seeking to extract the latest suspect for questioning Stanley timed his arrival home in the early evening. It was March when Stanley planted the seed and placed the small pot by the kitchen window. He had tendered to its every need with daily dedication. When the foliage was about 2 inches long, he feeds the plant a high nitrogen food to encourage foliage and stem growth. When the stems started to elongate, he had decreased the nitrogen feed to promote a full bloom. During late May, the buds began to open and expose the delicate dark red petals.

The following morning Stanley had followed his routine. With a spade in one hand and potted rose in the other Stanley made his way to the large grassed common area that lay in the centre of the housing estate. In the heart of the common area, he dug a small hole, knelt down, planted the rose and stood back. Immediately the sun’s rays broke through the morning clouds. A tender, sweet smell emerged from the rose and entered Stanley’s nostrils. He stood perfectly still. It was one hour before his neighbour Angie Ward, who had been peering at Stanley for 45 minutes through her bedroom curtains, came over to see what he was doing.

2nd-week June 2012When Angie Ward caught a smell of the tender fragrance she too immediately stood still, relaxed, let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes.Next, it’s was Tom Ridbridge, the neighbourhood thug who was to succumb then Jenny Heartbelt, one by one this reoccurrence was maintained until 11.45am. By this time every resident of the estate was standing in a large circle 100 people deep, in a state of total bliss and calm.

By 12noon the police were in attendance, but were powerless due to the numbers and density of the residents they could not access the centre of the circle to ascertain the cause nor were they able to smell the fragrance of the red rose. No matter how many times they demanded information the residents did not respond and only continued to remain silent, head slightly bowed, as if in deep sleep.

TV crews from the local media arrived. Politicians, who had not been seen on the estate for many years pronounced theories and point accusations at their opponents. Noble people from the town hall held discussions into the phenomena, which was taking place in their jurisdiction and without their consent. They passed emergency resolutions demanding the residents to disband and return home, but to no avail. As the day slowly became, night police helicopters hovered above with piercing searchlights scanning the crowd below. Barriers were erected to prevent people from entering or leaving the estate. At 11 pm the chief of police Edmond Clarke addressed the residents through his standard police issue loudhailer, “I have been ordered to disperse you all from this unlicensed gathering. I will give you until midnight to do so. If needed, I will use force, so please disperse peacefully now,” but no response was forthcoming.

At 11.55pm, Stanley opened his eyes, bent down and removed the red rose from the soil and placed it back into the pot. He stood up and like a regimented army his fellow residents slowly came to their senses, smiled, turned and calmly started to make their way back to their homes in silence.

10 am the day after; Stanley was sitting in his front room enjoying a cup of tea when he realised a calmness he had not felt for a long time was emanating from the streets outside. Calmness he had not experienced since before his parents had died. He glanced at the rose, which he had placed on the living room table. Its colour had drained. Leaning forwards Stanley took a photograph with his Polaroid Camera and wrote a single word and the date on the photo.

He sat back, closed his eyes, inhaled gently, smiled, and exhaled a deep sigh followed by a low murmur. His hands relaxed and opened on each arm of the chair. His body eased into the contours of the seat. A warm glow appeared in front of him.

Teaki

 

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