Why I Love… #5: The Night Of The Hunter

Year: 1955

Director: Charles Laughton

Stars: Robert Mitchum (Preacher Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel), Billy Chapin (John), Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl)

Genre: Thriller

“Dream, little one, dream”. The Night Of The Hunter is like a dream, or, more accurately a sort of wonderful nightmare. It seems built out of the broken building blocks of twisted fairytales, building blocks used to forge a construct of dark American gothic nature. When people use the term ‘American gothic’, they mean The Night Of The Hunter. It is in its bones. It’s blood. There’s even a lynch mob.

Based upon the novel by James Agee, Charles Laughton’s film is one of the richest curiosities in American cinema, and also, flat out one of the best American films ever made. It is visually indebted to the silent era quite profoundly, especially the German expressionists. It even features, in a fluke of unusual casting, one of the silent era’s greatest stars, Lillian Gish. And it is she who opens the movie, narrating the story, asking us in to its lurid, troublesome narrative. And then there is Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of corrupted preacher Harry Powell, a villain so completely realised that virtually every psychotic movie bad guy or serial killer since has seemed to owe the man a debt. There truly is no movie quite like The Night Of The Hunter, yet equally, there seem to be few movies that can be sighted as quite so influential.

The story that Lillian Gish introduces, surrounded angelically by innocent children and a vista of stars, quickly turns sour. With a fairytale theme to make Danny Elfman wet himself, we are introduced first to one of Harry Powell’s poor victims, collapsed in a cellar stairway in an image the recalls nothing so much as The Wizard Of Oz. Then, like the travelling eye of a deity, we come to pursue Powell himself, travelling the roads of the south, totting up his ‘works’, using the Lord as justification for his greed, seeking out his next opportunity. During a brief imprisonment Powell learns of just such a chance, and on his release sets about inserting himself into a rural family in order to get his hands on a hidden stash of money.

The hapless widow Willa Harper, who becomes his wife, is quite sadly doomed from the start, and the sequence following their impotent wedding night in which Powell exacts his murderous judgement upon her is unforgettable. The sharp shadows of the ceiling cutting the frame as deeply as Powell cuts with his knife. More ghoulish still are the images of her body, suspended in death at the bottom of a lake. Laughton’s vision is startling, and fascinatingly fulfilled.

But the best is arguably yet to come. Powell realises that Willa’s orphaned children John and Pearl hold the key to finding the money, and so begins a relentless cross country pursuit as the young ones flee. It’s hard to describe how bewitching this sequence is, how beautiful. John and Pearl’s escape down river is witnessed by rabbits and frogs, spiders and birds. They are one with the world and righteous, yet always in the distance there is the silhouette of Powell on horseback. Relentless and terrifying. Enter Lillian Gish’s Rachel; a saintly mother-hen to lost children, and, the viewer hopes, an embodiment of goodness strong enough to repel Powell once and for all.

No matter whether Laughton’s camera chooses to show us ghoulish imagery or nature’s brilliance, the eye for a striking shot is amazing. In a 2007 listing of the 100 Most Beautiful Films, Cahiers du cinéma ranked The Night of the Hunter No. 2.* It’s not hard to see why.

The Night Of The Hunter was Charles Laughton’s debut feature as director, and sadly, his last. Amazingly, the film was a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1955. What did audiences object to so, I wonder? Perhaps Powell being a preacher, and Willa’s blind religious fervour didn’t play too well; Laughton’s apparent distrust and cynicism over the corruptible nature of the seemingly or supposedly pure. Was Willa’s apparent complicity in her own murder too troubling? Whatever the reason, Laughton took it to heart and never returned to the director’s chair. Now, with hindsight, this can be seen as one of the true crimes of American cinema. One suspects we have been denied an incredible body of work. Had Laughton pursued his career, what wonders would we have seen?

We will never know. Still, the influence of The Night Of The Hunter is felt strongly today, in the work of directors as diverse as Tim Burton and the Coen Brothers. Not to mention shows like HBO’s Carnivale. Now, Carnivale was brilliant, and if you haven’t seen it you should, but the debt it owes to The Night Of The Hunter verges on downright plagiarism. See also Nathan Fillion’s Caleb in the final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as direct a reference to Harry Powell as I’ve ever seen.

Yet The Night Of The Hunter and Robert Mitchum’s powerhouse performance will outlast all imitators. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that it remained Laughton’s only movie. No matter who tries to imitate its heady mix of thriller and fairytale, nobody seems to get close to capturing this magic. Nothing is like it. No other movie casts shadows so darkly, and few feel so like a tormented dream.

Dream, little ones, dream.

* thanks for that one, Wikipedia 🙂

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