Article – Coulda Been Contenders

When Brando turns to Rod Steiger in the famous scene from On the Waterfront and desperately cries “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender!” it mines a deep seam of emotion for almost all who watch it. There are reasons why it’s among the most quoted lines in cinematic history. Most people have discarded a dream, wasted a talent. Even those living successful existences have at least one opportunity missed. That is why the scene resonates so strongly on a universal level. Personally, whenever I hear those words I think of two individuals who lived in the same cinema universe but worlds and years apart.

Charles Laughton and Saul Bass have sadly now passed away, but both plied their trade in the film industry. Laughton, amongst other talents was an actor of note. His high cultural water mark was the role of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quasimodo, the famous Hunchback of Notre dame. Bass is relatively unknown but most will have unwittingly viewed his work. His title design for films such as Psycho, Spartacus (a touching stone with Laughton who also starred here) and Vertigo is legendary. Spartacus apart, these men had very little in common, besides one key link. Both directed one full length feature each, both were instantly derided; both now garner cult classic status and universal praise.

Night of the Hunter – the story of love and hate

“Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil?” So asks the Preacher in Laughton’s sole feature Night of the Hunter. But this was no average preacher, and no typical film. Film noir was nothing new by the time Night of the Hunter hit American screens in 1955. Post-war USA, toughened by military conflict could easily deal with the darker side of humanity. Anti hero mobsters and femme fatales were consumed without problem. What Laughton served up however was pure evil, embodied by war veteran Robert Mitchum in what is now his most iconic role, the ‘preacher’ Harry Powell. The film is a dark fairytale. Mitchum, the murderous stepfather pursues two children through a gothic nightmare of depression era American seeking out a hidden $10,000 fortune. One set of knuckles are tattooed LOVE, the other HATE, although it would seem that the battle between them for Mitchum’s soul is already long lost. Disturbing fare indeed and on release the film was a commercial and critical failure. But can the subject matter take full blame?

Laughton had begun his acting career in the silent era of cinema. His experience in a medium without sound had made him acutely aware of the power of the image. This British director used black and white stock to create eerily beautiful compositions of fog and shadow, seemingly lit only by the moon. Laughton had looked east and seemed heavily influenced by the German expressionist Fritz Lang along with Murnau’s Nosferatu. In the 1950’s this influence may have seemed less avant-garde than low budget laziness. In an age when the new technology of colour was the order of the day, black and white was seen as a poor alternative. This blissful ignorance of a generation newly soaking up the lurid hues of Technicolor led largely to the film’s neglect.
The battle between the preacher’s contradictory hands mirrors the contrast between the original snub audiences dealt this classic and the lofty regard it is now held in. Laughton of course made no further films; studios give no money to commercial failures. Such a loss.

Phase IV – the ants are coming

Saul Bass was another man steeped in aesthetics, a background in commercials and film title design testified to that. Saul was the best in the business. In 1974 he directed his only full length film to sit alongside a number of shorter features. Phase IV centred on the attack on a band of disparate humans by aggressive ants, but this was in no way a throwback to creature features of the 1950’s. An unexplained phenomenon changes these ants, but not physically as the normal sci-fi route dictates. These ants grow smart. They develop a hive mind. Collective thought has never been looked upon lovingly in the US and I’m only half joking when I suggest that the communal beliefs (even that of ants) may have seemed unappealing to cold war America. Especially true when great strength is shown in the hard work and numbers of this uniform army of six legged soldiers. Like Laughton almost 20 years before him, Saul Bass failed commercially with this first and only opportunity as a movie director.
Perhaps the ambiguity of the film turned viewers off. Bass was not interested in explanations. The classic format of disturbance and resolution failed to be followed. What he did believe in was visuals. Phase IV relies heavily on colour, segments are meaningfully coded chemical yellow or blue in contrast to the natural desert backdrop. From a science documentary beginning Phase IV adapts into a hallucinatory optical overload. Using symmetry and patterning the director gives the ants an almost corporate identity.

I may be delving too deeply. The poor box office for the film surely lies in its lack of hero, single visible villain, standard narrative and resolution. No spoon feeding here. The use of real ants rather than special effects gives an oddly educational feel and it seems although we are back in the classroom at times. Nigel Davenport gives a suitably manic performance as the mad scientist, reminiscent of school biology teachers suffering acid flashbacks. Essentially a B movie, it’s hard to understand why Bass never made another. B movies hardly need studio support. Perhaps his disappointment in the public’s disapproval towards this wonderful gem made him question, why bother?

Waiting to be found
Both Phase IV and Night of the Hunter sit patiently waiting to be discovered or rediscovered, whether through late night cable viewings or a DVD buy. The sole films of two visionary men. And that is why I will forever link these movies when wasted talent is discussed. In their case talent not squandered by their own lack of endeavour, but ignored and misunderstood by unwilling audiences.
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