An earlier version of this article first appeared in CTEQ: Annotations on Film published in Metro 109 (1997): 49-50.
The Night of the Hunter is a film that I am little frightened to write about; scared that the act of writing might irrevocably change what is, for me and many others, a remarkable, magical and elusive movie. I worry and wonder whether what I see and experience time and again might only be, to quote one of the film’s characters, “all just a fake and a pipe dream”. This feeling is mired in the film’s almost hallucinatory imagery, its complex rendering of time, its delicacy and its astonishing creation of an ‘artificial’ and dream-like universe. The film performs one of the most difficult tasks in cinema, being both idiosyncratically self-conscious and emotionally engaging. It is a film that should not work – bursting with a conflation of styles, tones and registers. It is also one of the most deliriously synthetic fugues the cinema has to offer.
The only film directed by legendary actor and one-time collaborator with Bertolt Brecht (on Galileo), Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is probably the most successful attempt to ‘translate’ the ideas of Brecht into the realms of commercial narrative cinema (though it is very different to what is conventionally called Brechtian in cinema and draws heavily on James Agee’s pungent script, Davis Grubb’s evocative source novel and Stanley Cortez’s eye-popping cinematography). In the central role, Mitchum’s wife-serial-killing Harry Powell comes on like Mack the Knife let loose in a magical kingdom of expressionist lighting, shadow plays and gorgeously set-designed ’30s backwoods Americana. Despite focusing upon its two very affective child-leads, it is the extraordinary, almost-possessed Mitchum who holds centre stage, commanding the screen both aurally and pictorially. Lesley Stern has called Mitchum’s performance “histrionic”, but more accurately he is a miasmic body upon which the film’s mix of styles, histories and registers can be played out.1
The Night of the Hunter is essentially the allegorical tale of two innocents (John and Pearl) who are cut adrift from the familiar underpinnings of a stable family life. They are chased by Powell across a luminous, almost cut-out cinematic landscape before coming to rest in the nurturing Mother Goose-like world of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). One of the film’s most striking aspects is its continual reference, in a variety of guises, to the acts and purposes of storytelling. This obsession stretches from the incredibly stylised images that open the film to the closing direct-to-camera aphorisms delivered by Gish’s character. The film starts with a curiously non-diegetic flourish. Cooper appears in a field of stars reading short pithy maxims from the Bible. There is a dissolve to the heads of five children floating in the same starry substance, listening intently to the lessons that Cooper reads to them from the “good book”. This cuts to a series of helicopter shots that gradually draw us towards Powell. The register then shifts as “realistic” establishing shots are followed by wildly rear-projected images of Powell flailing over the wheel of a car while talking aloud to some sort of Old Testament God: “Your book’s full of killin’s”. This disorientating opening provides a model for how the film works: a clash of the anachronistic and the modern; a delirious mix of cinematic styles; a rigorous foregrounding of stories and their interpretations; a juxtaposition of dramatic modes and registers. The act of storytelling is used as a means to fix and make sense of an elusive world of signification where everything becomes contingent and embodied in character, spectator and teller. For example, Powell’s over-the-top performance of the tale of love and hate, left-hand right-hand, Cain and Abel, is for some a compelling interpretative allegory and for others a sign of his Pentecostal-fuelled fakery.
The Night of the Hunter is also a fascinating film in terms of its treatment of time. At various points the film refers to domestic, pastoral, linear, gendered, narratological and generational conceptions of time and ranges across the varied experiences of “being in time” available to the cinema. This obsession with heterogeneous time, a time that also darts backwards and forwards across cinema history and memory, is visualised by Pearl and John’s dreamy, timeless, ebbing-and-flowing free-fall journey downriver. The long scenes of the children’s flight have a gentle and archaic rhythm and tempo, furthering the film’s extraordinarily dynamic and poetic use of visual and aural motifs. But this is also a film that is out of time. It is both anachronistic and visionary; while fitting into neither the broader context of the mid-’50s or an earlier epoch it also doesn’t quite work as a film ahead of its time and was a box-office failure. It reaches back into cinema history, to the irises, wipes, mise en scène and performance styles of silent cinema, to the traditions of expressionism, stage melodrama, primitivism and a kind of American Gothic. It makes one glance back to the cinema of Griffith (most particularly through the figure of Gish) and Murnau but also plants itself ‘firmly’ within the shifting co-ordinates of ’50s American cinema through its use of sweeping helicopter shots, the dominating presence of one of the great stars of the era, Robert Mitchum, and a strikingly modern sexual pathology.
The Night of the Hunter is a film to haunt the mind. Its greatness lies in its ability to seem to belong to another cinema, another time, one that has ‘never’ existed in Hollywood. For example, the beautiful images of a submerged Willa (Shelley Winters) with throat slit and hair gently waving in the silent water are both horrible and extraordinarily gentle. They are like nothing else I have seen and felt in cinema. The Night of the Hunter is both an idyll and a cul-de-sac; a desert-island movie that bares close relation to the body of cinema, to the deeply American work of writers like Mark Twain, but that is also outside of it. It is subsequently, in almost every way, one of the great solitary works of cinema: magical, lyrical, theatrical, gloriously filmic and haunted by its own traditions. It is, perhaps, the greatest first and last work the cinema has known – an epic cinema alive to the fantastic and magical nature of the medium itself. As François Truffaut said, “It makes us fall in love again with an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers”.2
The Night of the Hunter (1955 USA 92 mins)
Prod Co: Paul Gregory Productions Prod: Paul Gregory Dir: Charles Laughton Scr: James Agee, based on the novel by Davis Grubb Phot: Stanley Cortez Ed: Robert Golden Art Dir: Hilyard M. Brown Mus: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce