A young boy stands like Peter Pan, hands on his hips against the pale background of his bedroom wall. A light pours through the window before him, casting him brightly despite the darkness in the room. The intersecting beams of the window pane cast a skewed cross across him, this distorted cross moving downward to the right against the wall. Suddenly, a large shadow steps into the frame, a personage of darkness that steals most of the light in the room. The boy is now cast in darkness. Here we have a filmic sequence derived from an appeal to the literature of images, a distorted religiosity beckoning the arrival of a diabolical presence. We have a moving picture demonstrating the shrouding of innocence by the waves of a harsh world, a world frustratingly characterized, as we will later learn, by abusers of power and manipulators of morality. Such flattery and gamesmanship is brought more into the light, as it were, when the light recedes into nighttime.
Not to mention, it’s very scary.
The Night of the Hunter triumphs where few films ever have by providing an artistic and illuminating visual experience that also acts as one of the most terrifying and haunting cinematic experiences available. At all times, there is profound depth in the structure of its shots, providing thrills, art, story, and morality simultaneously; they form the heart of an intricate and symbiotic coexistence. It is not fair to say that this film is “layered,” implying that there are surface elements (like the terror) that, when successively peeled back, reveal deeper more provoking elements (from morality and religion on through to the human psyche and the surreal ambivalence of dreams). Rather, I would propose that this film is a blended mosaic, not unlike the pointillism of a painting by Georges Seurat (admittedly, an Impressionist art form); it does not give us layers that require digging—though such digging is certainly welcome—but it gives us all its elements at once. What results is a blended and composite image, invoking blended and composite emotions, that strikes at the heart and mind of its viewers upon a single viewing. The terror in The Night of the Hunter is not some simple surface phenomenon; it is a substantial part of this mosaic, working hand and hand with its visuals to provide a movie-watching experience unlike any other.
The story may sound familiar; it has, after all, integrated itself into American culture. At least, parts of the story will. A Preacher named Harry Powell, a man with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on the knuckles of both hands who gets off on killing widows, is arrested for driving a stolen car. In prison, he shares a cell with a frantic man headed straight for the noose, a man who has stolen from a bank, and has hidden away the proceeds from the theft with his children. The Preacher gets out of prison and immediately moves to the now-executed man’s old town. The Preacher uses his appeal to woo the townspeople, gaining their trust. He marries the bank-robber’s widow in an attempt to get her children to reveal the location of the stolen cash. What ensues is a terrifying mix of thriller, mystery, film noir and horror that has been properly described as “one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains” ever made.
The Night of the Hunter was based, quite faithfully, on a 1954 novel of the same name by David Grubb. To direct the film adaptation, producer Paul Gregory recruited his close friend, the great actor Charles Laughton. Laughton was already considered one of the greatest actors in the world, and such a reputation remains with him posthumously to this very day. Laughton was a triumphant character-actor, who had a charmed ability to utilize his personal traits (a deep and provocative voice, a portly build, a plain face, and a sense of profound and dominant ego) as channels through which he could magnify the unique characteristics of his roles. Laughton was, at the time of his selection as the director of The Night of the Hunter, an Academy Award winner, winning the award for Lead Actor in 1933 for his eponymous role in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (a role that he would reprise twenty years later in Young Bess) and being nominated for the same award in 1936 for his performance in Mutiny on the Bounty. He had worked with some of cinema’s greatest visionaries, including Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, James Whale, and Alexander Korda. When he and Paul Gregory purchased the rights to The Night of the Hunter, it perhaps seemed to Laughton that he would be in a starring role. It was not to be that way, though: for financial purposes, Gregory slotted Laughton as the film’s director.
“Ignorance, sheer ignorance,” this was how Orson Welles characterized the revolutionary and visionary stylings and aesthetics of his masterpiece Citizen Kane. Perhaps the same can be said of the decision to recruit Laughton in the directorial seat. Certainly, Laughton’s ambition as an artist, unfettered by disillusionment while profoundly enabled by reputation, contributed to the bold and exhibitionist stylization of The Night of the Hunter. Already, the source novel told the eloquent parable of a West Virginia town and two young children within it who are haunted by the malice of a psychopath, the journey of these two children down a river leading to their salvation. But, there was a visual element necessarily lacking in the novel. Several forces, including Laughton’s own rookie-like ambition pairing with the deference awarded his genius, came together to provide this unique mise-en-scène, and, consequently, the unique pillar of a film.
Perhaps the most powerful of these forces came in the form of visionary directors from Germany who came to shape the horror genre. Much has been made in this blog on the German Expressionists, who made such films as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and their impact on American cinema in the form of film noir. The visual style dedicated to reflect the world of dreams and subjectivism in film was perfectly suited to both the utility of montage and the long-take, creating an ability to play with pacing that was perfectly suited to the horror genre (not to mention its ability to place its viewers on edge by means of its set design alone). Such stylistics were adopted not only in American noir, but also in the B-horror film, including the works of Erle C. Kenton and, to a more artful extent, James Whale. Laughton grew up in the era of silent film, and grew up alongside the infiltration of Expressionist style into cinematic maturity. He worked with both Whale and Kenton (and alongside Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in these directors’ respective films). Even Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester, was directly a part of the Expressionist horror genre in America, starring as the titular character in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Laughton also was a mainstay of the stage, where set design and direction lies at the heart of the visual element. On stage, one might argue, the proper usage of the set is even more important in the reflection of the literary source material than the performance of the actors that so often is treated as the solar center of our critical analysis. This, undoubtedly, worked to inform Laughton’s decision-making as he worked on The Night of the Hunter.
A second powerful force came in the form of the source novel’s writer himself. Perhaps motivated by his theatrical upbringing, Laughton’s insistence on staying faithful to the source material led him to ask Grubb to provide illustrations of various scenes from Grubb’s novel, ilustrations that would allow Laughton to enter the mind of the novel’s creator and understand the visual schema against which the action would be pitted. Grubb’s illustrations, perhaps not shockingly, bore great similarities to the mise-en-scènes of German Expressionism. (You should be able to see the sketches, as contained in Jeffrey Couchman’s “biography” of the film here). It seems, then, that this parable was meant to be told in an Expressionist world.
On top of the fortuity of Laughton’s appointment as director, other fortuities emerged. John Cochrane immediately lists the casting of Robert Mitchum as the lead antagonist as the chief fortuity among them. Mitchum was a mainstay, a standard, in film noir, particularly known for his role in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. In this regard, he is the vestige of film noir themes, including the Expressionist visual, inserted into the action in the present film. Yet another mainstay, or standard, Lillian Gish, was cast in the role of his antithesis, the benevolent Rachel Cooper. Gish was known as D.W. Griffith’s muse in such films in Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, and, as Mitchum is the noir vestige of The Night of the Hunter, Gish is the silent film vestige. These two seem to carry with them the stigma of their iconic roles of the past, and instead of trying to hide these stigmatizing forces, Laughton seems to go the complete opposite direction, opting instead to frame these characters in such a light as to exacerbate the stigmas. In this regard, the symbols that these characters provide are all the more tangible: one, a force of darkness, born from a world of amoralism and greed, the other, a force for good, from an era long past, whose gentle tentacles still reach to the innocent.
Another fortuity was, likely at first, not meant to be fortuitous. This fortuity was an unfortunately low budget. Even in 1954, $600,000 was a small amount to have in store for a picture. But, like I highlighted in my essay on film noir (hyperlinked above), such financial limitations facilitated the emergence of Expressionism generally, and that drove the makers of The Night of the Hunter into some of their most timely and significant decisions. Not least among these brilliant decisions were to ignore the pressures of people such as star Robert Mitchum to film in a realist structure by going on-location in the hills of West Virginia. Instead, the decision was to stay within budget and film on sound stages.
The last great fortuity was hiring Stanley Cortez to photograph this film. Cortez’s greatest work, to that point, was his cinematographic contribution to Orson Welles’ second masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons. As the film immediately subsequent to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons was a manifestation of Welles’ further honing of his cinematic vision, and Cortez deftly managed the demands of the auteur who directed him, just as Gregg Toland succeeded in Kane. That distinctly Welles-like style—intricate usage of lighting, calculated set framing and direction, and deep focus—breathed life into The Night of the Hunter thirteen years later. Laughton’s parable used Gish and Mitchum to paint a world of extremes, and Laughton’s decision to film in black and white was designed to both reflect and magnify that distinction. The story was meant as a fable. Laughton himself called it “a fairy-story, really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” Expressionism and chiaroscuro were integral to the film. Cortez was just the sort of photographer to handle it, and handle it he did. The Night of the Hunter remains one of the most sublimely well-photographed films ever made. Cortez himself that Laughton and Welles were the only directors with which he ever worked who truly understood the power of proper lighting.
Laughton, biographers in seeming agreement on this point, was deeply disillusioned by the more vocal and Puritanical portion of Christian America. As observed by Norman Holland, Laughton’s adaptation of Grubb’s parable acts much in the same way as Christ’s: it told of the difference between the overbearing and the compassionate branches of faith generally. “Faith alone against faith plus good works,” Holland explained.
This theme breaks the film into three main parts, with Laughton’s vestiges (Mitchum and Gish) acting as the principal actors in the first and third parts, respectively. The first part involves Mitchum’s Preacher integrating himself into the widow’s community, lurking and hesitating on the more disturbing elements of his evil. It is here that works to brainwash the widow, seducing her and then withholding consummation from her on their wedding night, before placing her on the altar of his bed to perform his own twisted rite of sacrifice. Her dead body, later found floating in a Model T at the bottom of the river, is among the most disturbingly beautiful and haunting images in the history of cinema, almost as if Laughton insisted the gruesome image look appealing.
From here begins the second act, which is one of the more engaging prolonged chase sequences that I’ve ever been able to see. The children, fearing for their lives, take to the river in a canoe and ride the river for miles and miles, descending a ripple at a time into the belly of the Appalachian nature. Animals are placed in the stark foreground, so that they seem far larger than you would normally think. Nature becomes the main player facilitating the children’s travel from the evil besetting them to their salvation. It is in this act that the famous image of the Preacher on horseback is drawn, like the specters of Halloween itself, standing on a moonlit horizon, seeking out his innocent prey.
The third act begins when the children are pulled from the river by Gish’s Ms. Cooper. Ms. Cooper becomes their protector, and sits in her rocking chair singing with a shotgun in hand deep into the night as the Harry Powell, the menacing Preacher, descends. Ms. Cooper is an important figure in allowing the allegory to come to life. Like Harry Powell, she often recites from scripture, and invokes the will of God in her counsel and prayer. She warns of false prophets, saying that you shall know them by their fruits. Later, she calls herself a tree, whose protecting branches might be used for shelter and defense. At the end of the film, then, the loose ends of the symbol become neatly tied when she is gifted an apple.
This use of oblique symbolism mixed with horror and Expressionism played a profound impact on David Lynch, but unlike the works of Lynch, which used symbols and imagery to make obvious statements while still shrouded in a sort of vagueness, Laughton’s use of symbols was born of the purest desire to tell a straightforward story: a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. The three acts of The Night of the Hunter do well to create an image and a world, bring you in and lock you in until its moral tale is tightly resolved.
Despite the profound symbolism, the artistic set direction, the visionary use of image generally, the acting, the story and the moral, perhaps the greatest part of this film is its sheer terror. This is why I cannot use the term “layered” to describe this film. A layered picture uses things like terror, melancholy or happiness merely as surface elements to the film. The deeper meanings are only found when these surface sensations are “peeled back.” Here, the film’s use of Expressionist mise-en-scène and symbolism do not make it difficult to find the deeper meanings of the text. This is a special advantage because it transforms the movie from an art film into an emotive cinematic experience, even a popcorn flick. The terror is the driving force of the film. Without it, there is no story, there is no masterpiece.
Generally, older films don’t age well when it comes to the scare factor. The tricks of the contemporary trade were not fully developed in 1955, just as they weren’t in the early 1920s when Robert Weine and F.W. Murnau were making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. However, The Night of the Hunter is one of the few films from that era that, to this day, work to drive fear. Mitchum’s performance is, no doubt, at the heart of this terror. But, the true frightful nature of the film is born of the visual dynamic developed by Grubb, Laughton, and Cortez. In this regard, the scare factor of the film works hand-in-hand, as a common partner, with the art of the movie generally. Analysis of the film is disadvantaged when treated as a compartmentalized breakdown of the film’s various structures and elements. Analysis of the film only leads to the proper judgment of the film’s quality when the borders of these compartments are blurred into a pluralistic mosaic of the single-viewing experience. This leads further to the conclusion that The Night of the Hunter is among the most perfect mergers of art and entertainment in the whole of world cinema.
Charles Laughton, when speaking with Lillian Gish about their respective opinions on the evolution of cinema, said something very on point for purposes of this analysis. “When I first went to the movies,” he said, “they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again.” I’ve tried to watch The Night of the Hunter with my seat reclined. It didn’t last long.