The Night of the Hunter (1955)

*. The Night of the Hunter is a movie that a lot has been written about, and a lot that has been written is very good. There’s no need to go over all of it again here. For example, I think everyone knows the story of how it was Charles Laughton’s only turn as a director, with the response being so disappointing he never directed again.
*. There was plenty of blame to go around for its not being understood at the time. Just look at the theatrical release posters and you can see the studio didn’t have the faintest idea what the movie was about or how to promote it. I wonder, however, if there was any chance of it ever being a hit.
*. The thing is, it’s a great movie but it’s not addressed to a mass movie audience (of the kind that existed then or exists now). The look is self-consciously stagey and lyrical, anti-naturalistic and artificial in its effects. This is something I think everyone can appreciate, but is it the sort of experience many people are looking for in a movie? I suspect not.

*. “It was the public that was wrong,” David Thomson concludes, “and no condition is more alarming.” That’s a judgment worth dwelling on, but I won’t. I’ll just say that it may not be a question of being right or wrong but only be a matter of taste.
*. It should have always appealed to critics though, as it’s a veritable anthology of different styles, bringing in a silent film aesthetic, noir, expressionism, and other forms of theatricality. Just look at the way those blossoms are arranged around the children as they are introduced. That’s not a yard, it’s a stage.
*. And it’s not just the film’s visual language but how well that language is being spoken. It’s a movie filled with fantastic visual elements but most of them are nearly static, thus making it a mine of memorable stills. I think this goes with how Laughton was inspired by silent film and its overly dramatic gestures and isolation of dramatic moments. The way Mitchum’s Preacher holds the knife up in the weird chapel of a bedroom, and keeps holding it as though turning into a statue. For audiences in 1955, and even more so audiences today, I think that comes across as weird.

*. Then there is the matter of tone. Is it a horror movie with “peculiar overtones of humor” (Pauline Kael), or a comic fairy tale with jarring notes of horror? It probably doesn’t make a difference as they’re all in the mix. I don’t think it upsets any kind of thematic unity because fairy tales are scary and funny and fanciful all at the same time. Still, you can understand the confusion people felt. There have been other screen villains who have performed comic bits, but the Harry Powell is slapstick most of the way through. Even at his most menacing there’s something phony about him, like he’s only playing a bad guy.

*. It’s a movie of favourite moments, most of them characterized by their staging and the dramatic photography of Stanley Cortez. Willa as Ophelia underwater. The Preacher silhouetted on horseback. The duet between the Preacher sitting outside and Lilian Gish inside with her shotgun. But I think my favourite is the look Shelley Winters gives Mitchum when she comes in to the house after hearing him threatening Pearl. What she does with her eyes there is remarkable.
*. That’s a model of Winters in the underwater shot, by the way. But damn does it look convincing. I always thought it was really her holding her breath.
*. Willa is also the most interesting psychological study in the film. She actually makes a good match with Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) in the way they are both taken in by Powell. Only where Willa surrenders herself to her fate, becoming whatever he wants her to be, Icey represents the furious backlash, standing at the front of the mob screaming for Mitchum’s blood at the end. Such people are always swinging from one extreme to the other. Poor Ruby, looking for love in all the wrong places, is the one true believer left carrying a torch (and not a pitchfork).

*. I mentioned the photography by Stanley Cortez and I will again. Of course light and shadow are two of the key ingredients to the art of photography, but you have to wonder if they’ve ever been as well employed as they are here. The shadows and blacks have an almost tactile silkiness to them, while light has a corresponding glow and texture. And it’s not just for show. The light and shadow have a real purpose.
*. In fact I think it’s a great movie in almost every department. Something in the editing seems hit-and-miss to me though, as the timing is badly off in several scenes, mainly in terms of what appear to be awkwardly delayed reactions. I also think the river journey with the foregrounded animals is presented in too crude a manner. I find this part of the film alienating.
*. Still, it’s managed to last. You’d think that melodrama wouldn’t, being so fixed in contemporary sentiment, but there’s something about such stories that abides and endures.

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2 thoughts on “The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. Tom Moody

    Thanks for this post on a great film. Possibly the movie’s music also brings momentum to its collection of static images and tableaux vivants. Walter Schumann’s symphonic score is omnipresent, sweeping the story along in both suspenseful and poignant moments. (According the Wikipedians his other notable score was the Dragnet theme.) Hymns are also used to advance the story, climaxing in the oddball duet between Gish and Mitchum at the end.
    Some of the awkwardness (such as the reaction shots you mentioned) comes from the two principal child actors. Their performances are somewhat stilted but this actually increases my sympathy for their plight. The scenes where Mitchum says “Children… Children…” I still find very frightening.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom! I’ve heard Laughton didn’t enjoy working with the kids, though I think he did well with them. There are at least a couple of places where I think if they’d cut the film a bit tighter they could have lost that delay I mentioned. I don’t think it was intentional, but on the other hand it’s a movie that seems totally unconcerned with seeming to go too far in any direction in order to achieve a certain effect. It’s one of a kind anyway.

      Reply

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