|Submitted by filmfactsman |
(Sep 03, 2005)
One of the greatest of all American films.
"The Night of the Hunter" is one of the utterly unique experiences the movies can offer, a wild concoction of fantastic, expressionistic, even surrealistic imagery. The only film directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton is a primal fable about two children, John and Pearl, menaced by a crazed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who marries their mother Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) as part of his plan to coax (or force) their secret from them: where they've hidden the stash of stolen money their father left with them before he was arrested. The American Gothic, Biblical tale of seduction, sin and corruption was based on a novel by Davis Grubb and adapted for the screen by famed writer-author James Agee (and Laughton, but without screen credit). Although recognized today as one of the greatest American films of all time, the imaginatively-chilling, experimental, sophisticated work was originally a critical and commercial failure, both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release in 1955.
From its start, the film is designed to have the special feeling of a child's nightmare, including the difficulty of keeping a secret, and a magical journey to safety—all told from a child's point of view. It also accentuates the contrasting, elemental dualities within the film: heaven and earth (or under-the-earth), male and female, light and dark, good and evil, knowingness and innocence, and other polarizations including equating the preacher with the devil.
"The Night of the Hunter" is part fairy tale and part bogeyman thriller--a juicy allegory of evil, greed and innocence, told with an eerie visual poetry. Drawing on sources as diverse as rural American fable, this is a strange, tense and at times dream-like film that sends a shiver down the spine. In one of the film's greatest visual sequences, the children, Pearl and John, float softly down a moonlit river, bound for an unseen providence. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who also shot Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" in 1942), film the children from the riverbank, placing a series of images--a frog, a spider's web, two rabbits--boldly in the foreground.
In other sections, "The Night of the Hunter" borrows its visual motifs from the silent films of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionist cinema of the '20s. Laughton plays with the long, slanted shadows of film noir, and in Willa Harper's A-shaped bedroom creates a Gothic chamber with showers of celestial light.
Described by Laughton as a "nightmarish Mother Goose", this profoundly disturbing psychodrama marked both the beginning and the end of his career as a director. Driven by a performance by Mitchum that goes a long way to defining on-screen evil, both tone and tale are absolutely compelling throughout. Laughton's picture looks different from other noir films of the period--though Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951) with its unusual camera angles, and Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing" (1956), with its multiplane staging (with props located between the characters and the camera), use similar ideas. However, his characters ARE different. In 1955, critics complained the film was self-consciously arty and too vague because of all the symbols. The resulting box office was so dismal that the depressed Laughton quit working on his second film, an adaptation of "The Naked and the Dead", and never dared direct another film. So he stands as one of the few directors whose batting average for masterpieces is 1.000.