Saturday, July 30, 2016
NO ENCORES: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
The moment I started the No Encores series, I knew there was one movie I was going to have to talk about sooner or later. “The Night of the Hunter” is widely considered one of the great films of American cinema. In 2008, it was even voted the second best movie ever made, right behind “Citizen Kane.” It’s also, without a doubt, the most famous example of a director only making one film. Charles Laughton, already considered a fine actor, made the film in 1955. Initially, “The Night of the Hunter” was poorly received by critics and did mediocre business at the box office. The negative reception was the reason Laughton never directed again, even though his sole directorial credit would eventually garner a reputation as a classic.
Meet Reverend Harry Powell. Powell travels the West Virginian countryside, finding widows, marrying them, and then slitting their throat with his switchblade. Despite his murderous actions, he dresses as a man of the cloth and preaches the word of God. While serving a prison sentence for the theft of a car, he overhears his cellmate talking about a hidden cache of money. After leaving prison, he hunts down the man’s widow and two children. While everyone else believes Powell to be a pious man of God, the children John and Pearl recognize him for the madman he is. After he kills their mother, the kids row down the river, hoping to escape Powell’s pursuit.
In addition to being considered one of the best films ever made, “Night of the Hunter” also unanimously features one of the best villains in all of cinema. Harry Powell is, simultaneously, an incredibly charming man and an unhinged psychopath. He sells everyone around town, including Willa Harper, that he’s a virtuous man. He can convince people of his lies, no matter how unlikely. He’s also a rambling nut case. His introduction involves him talking directly to God. His sermons, in which he represents the struggle between love and hate as an arm wrestling match, have an unhinged energy to them. He has no qualms about threatening a child. When annoyed or injured, Powell growls like a monster or whoops like a stuck animal. He’s an ultimate villain, calculating, dangerous, monstrous, charismatic, and self-interested above everything else. Robert Mitchum’s performance is utterly captivating.
James Agee’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Davis Grubb and rewritten by Laughton, is especially critical of the church’s treatment of sex. Powell constantly rants against “perfume and lace.” He visits a burlesque show, seething in rage at the stripper on stage. On the first night of marriage, he reprimands Willa for expecting a consummation of their relationship. She buys into his rhetoric, preaching his word, condemning the world of material things and sensual pleasures. Before the wedding, Icey Spoon dismisses sex rather bluntly. It’s obvious Powell hates women, because of the sexual desires they create in him. When his lust is aroused, he murders with his knife. By aligning these view points with a misogynistic serial killer, Laughton is clearly condemning anyone who denies the importance of a regular sex life.
Yet as critical as “The Night of the Hunter” is of the church, it isn’t dismissive of all religion. After fleeing Powell, John and Pearl meet Miss Rachel Cooper, a kindly old woman played by silent screen legend Lillian Gish. Cooper has taken in many lost children, raising them as her own. Like Powell, she’s well versed in scripture. She sings hymns, prayers, goes to church every Sunday. However, like the kids, she immediately recognizes Powell as a crazy conman. One of her adoptees is Ruby, a teenage girl coming into her own sexually. Rachel doesn’t judge Ruby for her desires, unlike Powell and his lots. If Powell represents everything wrong with organized religion, Gish’s Cooper represents the positive values. She believes in charity, in protecting children, in love and forgiveness. Gish is great in the role, though one can’t help but wonder how Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife and first choice for the part, could’ve done.
a fairy tale. It also takes place in the secret world of children. The location of the money is only one secret John and Pearl share. They have to survive on their own, necessitating they learn to communicate on their own terms
Several other details further that fairy tale feeling. First off, the film is not shot in a realist manner. Instead, Laughton looked to Expressionistic silent cinema for his visual inspiration. “Night of the Hunter” is defined by shadows and light. As John tells Pearl a bedtime story – itself a fairy tale variation on their life – Powell’s shadow looms into view. Willa and Harry’s bedroom has an arched ceiling, framed like a church itself. Spotlights are shined behind structures, rendering them black outlines haloed by white light. Wide shots are often seen primarily in silhouette. Laughton often places strange objects, like torches or hands, in the foreground of shots. It’s a gorgeous looking film, whose sense of design still brilliantly burns sixty years later.
Davis Grubb’s source novel was greatly inspired by Depression era West Virginia. Harry Powell was based off Harry Powers, a real life killer from Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The film version uses this Depression setting as another way to root the story in a different time and place. The Ohio River looms in the background, the children eventually making their escape down the river. A friend of John’s is an old man who works at the docks. The importance of religion among the group seems to be a result of living so close to the poverty line. In 1955, the Depression wasn’t that far away. However, the distinct setting is another way for Laughton to establish a story apart from our regular world.
horror films, as it’s my favorite genre. “The Night of the Hunter” is sometimes classified as horror. It made Bravo’s list of scariest movie moments. They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? ranks it as the 171st best horror film. The film more accurately belongs to the noir or thriller genre. However, “Night of the Hunter” is undeniably an intense experience, full of macabre imagery. After Powell kills Willa, her body sits in a drowned vehicle at the bottom of the lake. The film devotes a solid minute to the image of her frozen body, hair flowing back and forth, both angelic and deathly still. Another frightening moment occurs when John and Pearl first escape Powell. In a deeply shadowed basement, he threatens both kids. After John outsmarts him, Powell’s hands shot outward like an undead ghoul. In this scene, he becomes a boogeyman, as scary as any cinematic monster. His dogged pursuit of the children also marks Powell as something like a horror villain. While obviously on the marginal end of the genre, I think one can make a good case for “Hunter’s” horror bonafides.
The first time I saw “Night of the Hunter,” I found its first hour to be brilliant but its last thirty minutes to be somewhat unsatisfying. On this viewing, the whole movie strikes me as great. An especially impressive sequence occurs while John and Pearl float down the river, towards Rachel Cooper. As their little boat pass along the water, the camera focuses on small animals in the foreground. We see rabbits, a tortoise, and a toad. In the background, Pearl sings a haunting song. The parallel is obvious but Agee’s script puts a finer point upon it later. After an owl scoops up a rabbit, Cooper notes that “it’s a hard world for the little things.” The Harper kids are comparable to the small animals, vulnerable but good at hiding. Powell, meanwhile, is a predator, capable of killing at any moment and always on the look out for his next meal.
“Night of the Hunter” also features a decidedly off-beat ending. After Powell is finally captured by the police, after Cooper corners him in her barn, John dramatically reveals the hidden location of the money. While at the trail, John is reluctant to identify Harry as his mother’s murderer. At the same trial, the townsfolk who previously loved the Reverend loudly scream and condemn him. As the police drive Powell to the gallows, the same people town insist on lynching him. Cooper and the kids, meanwhile, have a peaceful Christmas morning together, exchanging gifts and reestablishing their love for one another. It’s the film’s final jab at conformity and those who preach the Bible but ignore its values.
the Coen Brothers’ favorite movies. It has many of the same elements: A combination of rustic location, quirky characters, sharp dialogue, and a tone that mixes humor, thrills, and moral lessons. You can certainly see David Lynch finding something of value in its dream like tone, predatory villain, and old fashion setting. And like all great films, “The Night of the Hunter” will continue to influence future filmmakers. One of the best movies ever made? That’s not for me to judge. However, it certainly is an extraordinary cinematic achievement. Many bemoan that Charles Laughton would never make another film. Yet who can blame the guy, when he got it so right on the first try? [9/10]