The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It is an eerily off-kilter world unto itself: a fable of secrets, of carefully concealed memories, illustrated through both rational and otherworldly images — a redemptive, cleansing nightmare. It’s an occupation of that nightmare, with its energies startlingly centered on immersing its audience in that world of its own, one that in very real sense once belonged to and was understood by us, when we were “little things.” (We turn away at its harshest moments of violence because the film editing forces us to, which is only right.) The determination of Charles Laughton in his sole directorial effort is to shake us back to that state of being, to make frightened children of us and to suggest — with appalling starkness for the time, or for any — that every permanent wound we carry is still traceable back to the juvenile fears, founded or not, of the singing traveler following and taunting us to the ends of the earth.

Night of the Hunter is sometimes tarred with the film noir brush, and in various aesthetic and thematic interpretations of the terms, it is a fair reduction: with resourcefully angular, shadowy visuals informed by Lang, Wiene and Murnau’s films at Ufa and a story about an unthinkable evil dwelling upon a decidedly innocent family unit, not to mention its mundane focal point of a wad of money hidden in plain sight, it calls back to some of the more domestic noir titles of the 1940s, most explicitly Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, its direct descendant The Stranger directed by Orson Welles, and Max Ophuls’ tough, brutal document of motherly love and the killing machine it rises up against, The Reckless Moment. However, all of the aforementioned — and the bulk of major studio noirs in general — took place in something resembling our own world, not the upside-down funhouse mirror of Hunter. In the case of Shadow of a Doubt particularly, the intrusion of remarkable rage and dread onto the very image of picturesque, calm Americana was the entire point; the force of evil in Laughton’s film has an even more distressing target, namely childhood itself, and by extension, love. Noir seems too small a frame for this portrait of relentless emotional violence and the magic that curtails it; it seems much more like a storybook — suffused with the traditions of Southern Gothic literature — of the kind that might have once been loved and feared in equal measure, the hard lessons of paralyzing fright falling upon the smallest eyes, prepared or not.

Laughton and James Agee, who’s somewhat controversially credited with a script that certainly does reflect his social preoccupations in part through its Depression-era setting, takes its inspiration from Davis Grubb’s even darker novel of the same name which in turn was a fictionalization of the story of serial killer Harry Powers, the “Lonely Hearts” killer. Grubb transforms him into the Reverend Powell (the never-more-oppressive Robert Mitchum), a terrifyingly determined phony Man of the Cloth, whose scheme of choice is to collect and ruin widows. It is not enough for him to be a ruthless movie villain with no moral scruples and seemingly no fear or weakness, which he is; he must also be a devastatingly accurate presentation of narcissistic violence, emotional as well as physical, a figure all too many of us will be able to recognize outside the confines of a fairy tale-like narrative. His latest victim, and a genuinely tragic figure at that, is Willa Harper (Shelley Winters, meeting her end in water as so often), beleaguered wife of an executed criminal (Peter Graves) who hid the wares of a violent bank robbery somewhere on his property before being captured. Willa is hoodwinked for this reason, not helped at all by the busybody she works for who is swooning over Powell as soon as he sets foot in town, and who happens to share with Powell a low opinion of the deep needs fulfilled and happiness alloted by physical pleasures; on their wedding night, he announces that theirs will be a union before God, not one of the flesh. She is not to be taken in forever, and while she rolls over for these abusive chidings in a way that suggests she never knew anything but a life lived for other people, she soon discovers the truth of Powell’s motivations and is accordingly murdered for it.

As a result, for what remains of the picture we view everything through the eyes of her two children, who are aware of the whereabouts of the money but have taken their father’s word that it is a secret never to be revealed to anyone, and they guard it with all their might — even as six year-old Pearl threatens to break thanks to her immediate affinity for Powell, the older John steadies her and sweeps her up on a haunting journey through swamps and rivers to escape Powell after he tries to kill them for the money. It is only by landing in the arms of Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish in her finest latter-day role, which at one point pays wondrous homage to her signature moment in The Wind), a shotgun-wielding mother figure for lost children who lives along the water, that they are able to breathe even slightly; he has followed them across every sort of terrain, unstoppable and (as John points out) never sleeping — and so the climax of the film becomes the illustration of the narrative he’s always repeating in his phony Christian guise: the forces of love and hate (each word tattooed on one of his fists), both insurmountable, colliding.

As a director, Laughton exhibits the same oversized personality he always did when acting; he directs every scene and shot with the conviction and imagination of Orson Welles, and his expertise and willingness to experiment with tone and hints of dreamlike unreality place him vastly ahead of his time, and almost doomed the picture — like most of Welles’ — to be misunderstood. Night of the Hunter looks as wild and distinctive and gorgeous as any Hollywood film ever made, with many shots that absolutely throttle in their ingenious beauty — take, for instance, the horrifying final exit of Willa, a woman who surrendered herself to pain and destiny but would never have surrendered her children, in which we see her immaculately preserved in the Ohio River, her hair waving with the current. It is by equal measures fearsome and artfully delicate, neither feature disrupting the other. Later, as the boy and girl hide in a barn, they are tormented by the sound of Powell’s singing of hymns (the “beautiful” singing voice Willa’s boss kept harping on about, now bent toward menace), echoing out into oblivion through the spellbinding aural design of Stanford Houghton, and John — watchful and alert as always, even within the illusion of safety — gazes out and sees the lonely, distressing image of Powell on his horse in silhouette, laid against the horizon, plodding across our field of vision. It’s such an inspired shot it nearly hurts, like something from Powell & Pressburger, and could be neither scarier nor more ethereal, the collision of emotional distress and joy that is the great fact of cinematic thrillers and the reason that, at their best, they dive into emotional ambiguity unseen almost anywhere else in art.

Yet still, Laughton’s work stands alone, certainly with the help of the big-eyed, childlike reduction and/or magnification of the world to simple blacks and whites — the acting is all tastefully heightened, and there are flights of fancy such as a procession of animals “blessing” the children as they pass along the river — and with the morally righteous lyricism of Agee’s dialogue, which lays out its themes and its notions of good and evil (which, it should be stated here, are more furiously expressed and frank than in any sci-fi or superhero exploration of the same ideas I am aware of) with bluntness without insulting our intelligence. Even the most flowery dialogue in the film is never pretentious, only a heartfelt expression of sheer emotional intensity and depth of feeling, the same as what you might find in a Bergman film, albeit tied to less nebulous or specifically “adult” events. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to classify this as a great children’s film despite its terror and violence, because of its rich understanding of how fear alters us and is filed away — and certainly because it does not condescend to its audience — but there’s also the danger of reducing Hunter to such a status simply because the tale it tells is so elemental, and so elegant in its directness; it is a communication, then, to the still-frightened kid in all of us, and your reviewer can testify that it still has the power to provide us with actual nightmares.

For a certain breed of audiences, Night of the Hunter changes when Lillian Gish appears; speaking for myself, as a younger man I didn’t quite know what to make of her character when I first saw the film, apart from being thrilled to revisit an actress I already loved for her much older works. Raised on cynicism, I felt it too simplistic for Mrs. Cooper to be a mere force of love and kindness through her purity of faith and unconditional attention toward the children who hovered around her. I was both too young and too old to appreciate her importance; I was like John, too skeptical to be reassured. Now it seems that her selflessness, while Laughton gently mocks it at times and never makes any implicit claim that she is a “good” woman whereas Willa was a “bad” one who exposed her kids to this disaster, is something genuine and wise far beyond the morality play clichés such a characterization may express. The essence is in her moments alone with John, when she indicates her perspicacity about the emotions of children, and for all the disciplining and prattling on about the Bible that may associate her in some sense with the organized depravity of her antithesis, Powell, it is more than evident that she observes her young charges as people, with complexity and infinite capacity to love and be loved, and she is able to connect with John merely by forging a bond with him both as moral equals and as a nurturer. She lends him a validation and self-assurance that he has never known in his life, and like a great teacher or therapist, she causes him to discover his own strength — a feature laid out in the gentle finale, wherein he returns the favor symbolically with an apple like the one they shared before and she immediately grasps what he is saying to her.

Gish’s Cooper is also utilized by Laughton as a specific rebuking of any notion that he is casting the story as a rejection of faith itself; at the point when she and Powell finally meet for their climactic clashing, he is preceded as usual by the sound of those terrifying hymns, and she finds herself moved enough to join in, as we watch her — in another of the film’s many unforgettable visuals — seated in silhouette against the night, clutching her gun, waiting. But her faith is unlike his. For one thing, she genuinely believes and not merely to serve her own ends, and it manifests in the moral grounding she places within the children for whom she serves as guardian. It is no accident that the teenage girl who inadvertently lures Powell to the de facto orphanage is never shamed or punished for it, is only empathized with and understood and held; nor is it an accident that, in contrast to a community now abruptly out for Powell’s blood when he is caught (the same people, of course, who helped install him in the Harpers’ lives in the first place), all John wants to do by then is stop living out this spectacle, to save his mortal enemy from the lynch mob. It seems that a number of audiences took this conclusion as unsatisfying; after all, there is no grand moment of revenge or righteous victory, only a breakdown on John’s part when he simply doesn’t want to see another man sent away to rot or die, to witness more grief and loss in a life that’s rapidly accumulated so much of them. By denying us any other sort of catharsis, Laughton and the authors resolve the frightened stirring of our souls only with the recognition of a light that beams afterward, the same one suggested in the film’s abstract first moments of guardian angel Gish telling stories. That light needn’t be God or religion, even if those can benefit — or distort — it; rather, it is the light of being loved, cared for and understood, and the expansive beauty of this film’s emphasis upon this is what makes it more than noir, more than a thriller, and something like an act of brutally hard-won love itself.

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