Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Short Take: The Night of the Hunter

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The southern-gothic suspense thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955) was the only film directed by Charles Laughton. It’s a shame he never made another, because the picture is one of the most imaginatively realized to ever come out of Hollywood. Robert Mitchum stars as a psychopathic itinerant preacher who comes to a small West Virginia town. He's there to woo a local widow (Shelley Winters). The woman’s husband (Peter Graves) robbed a bank, and he went to the gallows without the loot being recovered. The preacher met the husband while serving a sentence for auto theft, and he’s convinced the couple’s young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is hidden. He marries (and murders) the widow in short order, and proceeds to terrorize the children. The two escape and eventually come under the protection of a local old woman (Lillian Gish), but it isn’t long before he tracks them down. Laughton’s model for the film’s noir visuals was the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. The imagery is a marvel: the triangles of light on the looming, dark walls when the preacher murders the widow; the hauntingly lyrical sight of the dead woman underwater in a sunken car, her hair streaming in the current; the preacher’s silhouette on horseback as he comes to confont the old woman. The most marvelous of all is the children’s escape from the preacher. They ride a skiff down the river with various animals looking on, and it’s like something out of Walt Disney's dreams. Laughton also does extremely well by the occasional oddball moments provided by scriptwriter James Agee. The most memorable features the preacher and the old woman singing a hymn in unison during their climactic standoff. Robert Mitchum is extraordinary as the preacher. The characterization is a remarkable blend of charm and menace. One feels the preacher’s charismatic hold on the children’s mother, and the sight of him fills one with dread even when he’s standing still. Tim Burton and other filmmakers have appropriated Laughton's visual approach and other touches, but there’s still no film quite like this one. It both chills and astonishes. Stanley Cortez provided the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The film is based on the novel by Davis Grubb.

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