Like most films that experiment with conventions, push boundaries, and muddy otherwise comfortable demarcations of tone, style, and genre, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter was not particularly well received when it was first released in 1955. Neither audiences nor critics (nor United Artists, the studio that produced and released it) had any real idea what it was. Critics were generally kind to it, possibly because they recognized how boldly the film incorporated so many different cinematic styles, although hardly in a way that would suggest its later classic status. Audiences, on the other hand, mostly stayed away, which by all accounts broke Laughton's heart. A much heralded British actor with a resume dating back three decades, Laughton had shifted his attention in the 1950s to directing stage productions, although The Night of the Hunter is the only film he directed, a real shame given that it evinces so much potential.
Based on the novel by Davis Grubb and adapted for the screen by writer and film critic James Agree (who had previously adapted The African Queen for John Huston), The Night of the Hunter is an archetypal thriller that bounces relentlessly between hard-edged realism and exaggerated lyricism, giving the impression of a stylized nightmare. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who shot Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons) eschew a consistent, defining style in favor of a grab-bag approach in which they borrow looks and tones from previous eras and genres to suit whatever scene is before the camera lens. Thus, there are scenes that evoke the patent unreality of German expressionism, scenes that recall the lush pastoral qualities of D.W. Griffith's silent films, images that are positively surreal, and moments of slapstick humor that seem almost perversely designed to undermine the film's more frightening moments. As a whole it doesn't entirely work because its purposeful inconsistency highlights experimentalism at the cost of emotional and tonal coherence, but there are moments that are so brilliantly realized that you can't help but admire the effort.
In its broadest sense, the film's Depression-era narrative would be best described as a fairy tale (Laughton described it as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale"), which provides a ready-made framework within which the film can emphasis the clear divides between good and evil from a child's point of view. The primary characters are two children: 10-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and his 5-year-old sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Near the beginning of the film John and Pearl's father (Peter Graves) desperately and foolishly robs a bank, leaving them with knowledge of the whereabouts of the $10,000 he stole before he is hauled off to jail and eventually executed. Their mother Willa (Shelley Winters), a simple woman who is easily swayed, is then sought out by Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a cunning psychopath who uses the disguise of an itinerate preacher to roam the countryside for moneyed widows to murder. We have already been made aware of how his murderous tendencies are enflamed by sexual arousal, which is cleverly depicted in a sequence in a burlesque hall where Powell's phallic switchblade cuts through his coat pocket during a dance, a perverse symbolic stand-in for his explosive conflation of sex and violence. The Freudian overtones are so overt as to be almost comical, but Mitchum plays the role with a stark severity that establishes him as the prototype for all future screen psychos. The scene in which he uses his hands, one tattooed with L-O-V-E on the knuckles and one tattooed with H-A-T-E, to demonstrated the universal battle between good and evil is a clever demonstration of how he can twist his perverse worldview to trick those who only see the cloth he wears.
The second half of the film is an extended chase sequence in which John and Pearl escape from Powell and take off in a boat down the river, with the preacher in constant pursuit. They eventually find his opposite (an important element in any fairy tale), in this case Rachel Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish), a kindly, God-fearing woman who also proves that she can wield a shotgun if necessary when protecting the children. Laughton had already established her presence as a kind of guardian angel in the film's opening moments, where we see her cast against a night sky reading from Christ's Sermon on the Mount and emphasizing the dire warning against "false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves." The conflation of Biblical scripture and fairy tale imagery is powerful, giving Mitchum's preacher an almost supernatural force of existence, which is emphasized later in the film via his omnipresent shadow and his seemingly unstoppable pursuit of the children ("Doesn't he ever sleep?" John asks himself at one point when he thinks they have gotten away from him and then sees him riding slowly across the horizon on a horse).
Despite its tepid initial reception in the mid-1950s, The Night of the Hunter has gone on to become a bona-fide classic, embraced with equal enthusiasm by classical film buffs, horror fans, and cult film aficionados. The extensive adoration it now enjoys from corners that are not usually in agreement is ironically related to precisely those qualities that kept it from acceptance half a century ago, namely its wide range of tones and approaches that never quite gel, but still produces some of the most memorably imagery in Hollywood cinema. The children's nighttime sojourn down the river, which is depicted with an oneiric sense of subjectivity via expressionist lighting, minimal sets, and distorted photography, has deservedly become a classic in its own right. The scene in which Powell berates Willa her sexuality within an A-frame bedroom that looks like a church also sticks in one's mind, as does the nightmarish image of a corpse tied to a car at the bottom of a lake, her floating hair intermingling with underwater plants in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. The mixture of such imagery and tones is fundamental to The Night of the Hunter's overall effect, which stands apart from most Hollywood cinema of its era and looks forward to a more daring film renaissance to come, one that Laughton sadly never lived to see.
Copyright 2010 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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