The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter
1955. Directed by Charles Laughton.
Charles Laughton's only film is a hallmark of American cinema, a love note to German expressionism, and one of the most unsettling films ever made. Using a surface level approach, The Night of the Hunter presents a biblical Gothic fable in which the classical themes of motherhood are both a dangerous presumption and a powerful weapon against the evil of greed.
John and Pearl Harper are two children who are the custodians of a terrible secret. Their father stole ten thousand dollars and hid it on the family property before being captured and sentenced to hang. A nefarious "preacher", who is their father's cellmate, learns about the money and insinuates himself into their family. The children are soon confronted by the preacher's despicable agenda and forced to travel a Moses-like sojourn up a river and into the protective arms of an old woman who takes in orphans. As the preacher descends on their new found refuge, a battle of wits transpires between the villain and the children's surrogate mother, setting up an unforgettable climax.
Criminally panned upon release, this would sadly be the only film Laughton directed. The Night of the Hunter features Robert Mitchum in one of the best performances of his career. Laughton and James Agee's script (adapted from the book by Davis Grubb) sets up Mitchum's villain as a murderous chameleon who uses his rugged good looks and unshakable faith to attract single women. The brilliance is how Mitchum uses everything he is renowned for in order to bring a role unlike anything else he ever played to life. The devil is in the strengths and Mitchum's charisma is so vivid that it melds with the storybook presentation perfectly. How he was not honored with awards for his performance in this film only increases its mythical reputation. Lillian Gish supports as Rachel, the mother of lost children. Her showdown with Mitchum during the final segment is an amazing confrontation of the subtle and the grandiose, with Gish and Mitchum playing off of each other to deliver a scene in which death is everywhere, but yet no blood is spilled.
Stanley Cortez's transcendent cinematography begins as an homage to German expressionism, with sharp angles and fantastical, creepy imagery filling every shot. However, as the film finds its own cadence, it's Cortez's mastery of shadows and the manipulation of vision that give his compositions an evocative sense of urgency. The first two acts are dominated by Mitchum's villain and the idea of constant movement is always at work. Shadows are used to a great effect to reinforce the idea that from a scared child's point of view, abusers are supernatural monsters. In the third act, when the renegade meets the unassailable is when time seems to stop and the shadows take on a life of their own, illuminating everyone for what they truly embody.
Walter Schumann's unforgettable score is the final ingredient, with the film's theme song beautifully encompassing both the horrors and blessings at work in the lives of the children, much like the constant ebb and flow of parental emotions. Laughton goes to great pains to present motherhood as a vulnerable miracle in which a broken heart can be the doorway for the devil and a mother's unconditional love can part oceans.
Available now for digital streaming or on a outstanding Criterion Collection blu ray. The Night of the Hunter is a wonderfully simple idea presented in a hauntingly beautiful package. Using fairy tale imagery to invoke the terrors of child abuse in a southern Gothic setting and featuring a one of kind performance from Robert Mitchum, this film is an excellent choice for Halloween viewing.