Charles Laughton’s singular 1955 classic, starring Robert Mitchum as a wily, itinerant preacher whose black heart is masked by a silver tongue, may be as close to a perfect film as Hollywood ever produced. The screenplay, by James Agee adapting the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb, achieves something close to pure poetry, as two young children, brother and sister, resist this serpent wrapped in a man’s skin as he pervades their lives and home, in a manipulative quest for a stash of stolen money, hidden away in a lowly rag doll. The psychopathic Powell, however, is a powerfully magnetic figure, and his words cast a spell – as when he tells the story of “Love and Hate,” words tattooed across the knuckles of each hand – one that has resonated through popular culture ever since.
Laughton’s noirish fever dream, a dark fairy tale, a nightmare really, is potent inspiration for New York singer-songwriter Peg Simone’s song cycle, which she performs for the first time at the Tallahassee Film Festival. Simone, whose albums include Secrets from the Storm and Witch Tree Road, works often with literary sources, whether collaborating with fellow artists such as the poet Holly Anderson and novelist Mary Gaitskill, or adapting themes and personas from the work of Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, as she has done in previous Tallahassee appearances, during the inaugural Word of South festival and in last year’s workshop performance of “A Southern Gothic Pocket Opera” at the All Saints Culture Club.
Not unlike the dark materials conjured by Laughton, Agee, Grubb, Mitchum and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Simone’s voice and guitar gather force like the penumbral swirl of leaves and moss in the night wind, rooted deep in American folklore and the insistent heartbeat of the blues. Her performance will be followed by a screening of The Night of the Hunter, with a special, surprise element introduced in collaboration with Tallahassee artist Linda Hall.