THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lilian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Director: Charles Laughton
Stanley Cortez’s cinematography is a glow of unbalance and
neurosis, of fissures widening across psyches. A highlight reel of his oeuvre
would play like a montage of classic American cinema’s most vivid meltdowns. Hysteria, whether repressed or fiercely eruptive, frequently
lurks in Cortez’s combustible spatial arrangements in this extraordinary
collaboration with Charles Laughton in the latter's directorial portrait of America.
Laughton was a consummate stage and screen actor whose performances scarcely
lacked a touch of the baroque – but he expressed interest in extending his
directing abilities from theatre to film, and saw in Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel
the ideal subject for that transition. Grubb reportedly would send Laughton
sketches for the visualisation of certain scenes, while legendary literary
whirlwind James Agee—film critic, screenwriter, award-winning novelist—was
hired to write the adaptation. He delivered a sprawling screenplay overflowing
with camera directions of his own. Add to them contributions from such potent
personalities as score composer Walter Schumann, set designer Alfred E.
Spencer, and Cortez himself, not to mention iconoclastic leading man Robert
Mitchum, and the project would seem to have suggested an egotistical battle of
duelling auteurs. Yet The Night of the Hunter endures
to this day as a singular fusion of artistic voices and elements, their
equilibrium paradoxically resulting in one of the screen’s most unforgettably
“Fear is only a dream,” or so goes the lullaby over the opening credits. Immediately from the opening images, with the faces of young boys and girls superimposed like shining stars on a night sky, the timbre is disconcertingly childlike. Helicopter shots further establish the celestial vantage point, descending to a farm in Depression-era West Virginia, where a woman’s corpse is discovered by a bunch of young children. An abrupt cut accompanied by blaring horns introduces Harry Powell (Mitchum) on the road in a stolen clapped-out jalopy, clad in black from top to bottom and engaged in a casual, one-sided conversation with his maker. “What’s it going to be, Lord? Another widow?” The very personification of a ravenous fairy-tale wolf, Powell is the malevolent personification of the “false prophet” which the film’s prologue warns children about as his malignance appears to contaminate the mise en scène surrounding him. At a burlesque house, he sneeringly watches a striptease until the ithyphallic switchblade in his pocket bursts through the fabric—as Cortez keeps a harsh spotlight around the dancer onstage, while the other patrons in the audience are hooded by darkness, the first of the many instances of minimalistic sets transformed by unsettled lighting. The transition from the claustrophobic music hall to a vast flowery field further evokes a feeling of polar opposites kept safely apart, quickly undermined as crime and punishment intrude upon the pastoral tableau. Rushing home with bloodied hands and stolen loot, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has just enough time to tell his young son, John (Billy Chapin), and tiny daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), to conceal the money before policemen haul him away. Ben crosses paths with Powell while awaiting execution in jail, and soon the serial-killing preacher is setting his sights on the ten thousand dollars his cellmate has stashed back home.
In an evocative digression, the film momentarily leaves the main characters to follow a hangman from prison to his house, where the shabby figure of death is revealed to be a meek paternal individual. On the surface a rural idyll, the children’s hometown gradually emerges as a beehive of busybodies, bereft drunks, slatterns and other lost souls. In this fragile veneer of order, devastation in disguise is an eternal threat. “I just don’t want a new husband,” declares Willa (Shelley Winters), John and Pearl’s widowed mother. The film then cuts to a locomotive train blasting out smoke and whistling as it hurtles across the screen. As if determined to disprove the notion that actors-turned-directors have a tendency to focus on performances at the cost of visual expression, Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is above all a fiendish noir experience. When Powell materialises at the children’s home, he’s a looming silhouette projected on a window curtain, a sinister figure invading their makeshift shadow play. Having charmed Willa into marriage only to shame her into religious fervour, he presides over the local revival meeting in a sequence that daringly echoes the earlier burlesque house scene: a spectacle of simultaneous repression and release before raucous viewers, with a torch in the foreground taking up a third of the screen while shadows flicker aggressively on the blank walls. Laughton worked closely with his cinematographer Cortez to achieve an atmosphere of terror mingled with enchantment. In the remarkable scene where a strange peace falls over Willa as she, finally wised up to Powell’s scheme, lies in bed and waits for his razor, the bedroom is lit into hard geometric shapes reminiscent of one of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse thrillers as with the otherworldly image that follows, with her lifeless body bound to a car at the bottom of the river while her blonde tresses sway like seaweed.
On the run from Powell, the kids drift down the Mississippi river on a small boat while nature watches from the sidelines. A spider’s web is superimposed over their tiny vessel, Pearl sings a song about a “pretty fly” in a voice not quite hers, toads and foxes and turtles appear in enormous close-ups. The deliberate naiveté of these passages pushes beyond the film’s biblical intimations and into something more primeval, elemental survival as an excursion dreamed up by children. Farmhouses along the way look like storybook cut-outs, the villain turns up as a tiny shape on the horizon. (To achieve this forced perspective, a tiny adult was filmed on top of a pony.) “It’s a hard word for little things,” an old woman sighs after seeing a rabbit swooped up by an owl. Rachel Cooper, a feisty mother hen who takes John and Pearl into her home of stray youngsters, describes herself as “a strong tree with branches for many birds.” A beacon of light in the grim topography, she’s also irritable, prone to talking to herself, and not afraid to confront the satanic column of muscle standing at her doorstep. Granny here totes a shotgun—plenty of steel in that pint-sized frame. Mitchum’s amused insolence in playing Powell as an archetypal ogre with love and hate tattooed on his massive knuckles are at once amusing and terrifying, with him singing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” on a darkened porch, is a spiritual tug of war that sets the stage for the physical confrontation that follows. Cortez’s cinematography is at its most electric here, alternating between pools of luminosity and pits of murkiness, often keeping the two adversaries on opposite planes in gorgeous compositions perpetually on the verge of rupture. The Night of the Hunter is still so startling when seen today. Its theme of the search for the divine in an utterly godless world, is an uncanny mélange of the archaic and the modern.
This cinema masterpiece somehow combines a Brechtian artist’s analytical eye with a child’s matter-of-fact awareness of evil and hope. It’s easy to bemoan the fact that Laughton never directed again, but better to rejoice in the visions that he did bring to life, aided by volatile clashes of light and shadow.