The Night of the Hunter
Film Title: The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce
Running Time: 93 min
Every now and then, we can be a little patronising about our forefathers. How remarkable – they understood all kinds of things about the persistence of dreams, the cruelty of religion and the power of myth. All that noted, it takes a person aback to again absorb the utter modernity – or, perhaps, timelessness – of actor Charles Laughton’s only film as director.
Consider the shot that finds poor Shelley Winters trapped in a car at the bottom of the river, weeds aping the mad drift of her own submerged hair. The decision to make something so visually seductive of a scene so soaked in horror is something we’d expect from a bolshie Young British Artist. But The Night of the Hunter, which was made in 1955, is full of such wilful oddness: amphibians croaking by the river; a murder carried out in madly theatrical shadows; the opening credits played out to a spooky children’s song.
Contemporary enthusiasts can trace all kinds of influences here. That murder certainly gestures towards the classics of German expressionism. There is much savouring of the Brothers Grimm and their delicious cruelty to children. But The Night of the Hunter – not least because Laughton never directed again – does not look or sound much like any film ever made.
The plot is now so familiar it has, itself, taken on the quality of myth. Robert Mitchum plays a psychopathic preacher – “hate” tattooed on one hand, “love” on the other – who romances a naive widow with thoughts of terrorising her children into revealing the location of a stolen fortune. Once their mother is dead, the kids drift downriver towards a sort of rough paradise supervised by the saintly (and occasionally terrifying) Lillian Gish.
On its release, the film was greeted with puzzled reviews and lukewarm box office. But, over the last four decades or so, it has gained something more valuable than cult status: it has become a sort of sideways classic.
“They abide and they endure,” Gish says of children. Much the same could be said of The Night of the Hunter.