It’s all left to our imaginations what Charles Laughton would have accomplished in his career if his first foray into filmmaking with The Night of the Hunter was not critically derided upon its initial release. If you were Laughton, actor and one-time director, who gave your all to create this masterwork only to be lambasted to the ground by the 1950’s conservative audience and banned from picking up the camera by studios who considered you a fluke, chances are you’ll be eternally disheartened and a return to your previous job seemed a more viable option. Laughton never directed again, which is rather saddening, and this exquisitely singular and bold work serves as a contemporary cinematic lesson to us all – think first before you haphazardly condemn a film. It’s far easier to create bile than to give serious thought to a directorial work such as Laughton’s, who was criminally robbed from the great things he would have contributed to American filmmaking.
The injustice in question is evident in The Night of the Hunter‘s assured artistic vision of an American Gothic parable, which is equal parts socio-political commentary, indictment on religion and a Brothers Grimm-inspired tale of innocence and morality. That something so wondrously unique was inconceivably misunderstood, taking the film decades to shake off its cob-webbed reputation and emerge as a dark horse in cinema, gaining robust stride and reappraisal over time. It now presently resides on the second spot of Cahiers du Cinema‘s most beautiful films ever made next to Citizen Kane, and is currently waltzing back into our picturehouses in a glorious restoration courtesy of Park Circus Films. It’s hard not to watch works from David Lynch, Martin Scorcese and even Guillermo Del Toro and not think of Laughton’s sheer influence on these directors.
This seemingly straightforward good-vs-evil narrative takes a darker, more chilling depth when the film places front-and-centre a villain in the form of a self-styled, Bible-quoting evangelical preacher Reverend Harry Powell – played to an unforgettably iconic, menacing and complex performance by Robert Mitchum – who appropriates himself as patriarchal figure of this down-on-their-luck, fatherless family of three. His tattooed knuckles, ‘love’ on one hand and ‘hate’ on the other, when intertwined becomes Hunter‘s enduring thesis on religious fundamentalism, blurring these two ideological emotions together, masking greed and control beneath the benevolent fingers of good intentions. Mitchum’s Powell learns about a lump-sum of cash hidden around the estate of Shelly Winters’ widower Willa Harper, and he’s hellbent in locating the fortune, going as far as marrying into the family and terrorising the children out of their wits.
Which leads us to a few of cinema history’s most startlingly beautiful compositions – a German Expressionist-inspired murder sequence under a high-vaulted ceilings of crepuscular shadows, an eerie underwater shot of Winter’s corpse and her hair billowing amongst the weeds, a harrowing chase scene along cellar stairs and an extended, deeply poetic river sequence that audaciously shifts into surrealism without losing its power nor its heartbreaking poignancy. In many respects, The Night of the Hunter is a horror film, and one that would indubitably haunt your nightmares, especially the monstrosity of Mitchum’s Powell. But Laughton suggests that real horror does not only come from the chase scenes – but in the stark, terrifying reality when children don’t have anywhere to run to anymore. The boy John (an incredibly stoic, moving performance by child actor Billy Chapin) had to shake off childish acts and grow up quickly to protect his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) when there are no adults around to help. There is no better metaphor than the sight of Reverend Powell mounted on a horse, striding along a stark, nightmarish landscape whilst whistling a ghastly tune, as the poor, frightened orphaned children cower in a barn – the essence of pure evil comes from a primal place where greed and desire for monetary power lurch, ready to crush innocence at all cost. Nearly five decades after its first release, this still remains profoundly resonant.
DIRECTOR: Charles Laughton | CAST: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Lillian Gish | SCREENPLAY: James Agee | DISTRIBUTOR: Park Circus Films | RUNNING-TIME: 93 mins | GENRE: Drama/Crime/Horror | COUNTRY: USA