(Charles Laughton, 1955)
(essay by Troy)
I’ll be back…when it’s dark
Such a line speaks to the deep rooted and irrational fears that all children have of the night, a time when they feel alone, unprotected, and at their most vulnerable. It’s the time when the mythical boogeyman goes about terrorizing the young. Building from this archetype is Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, creating an all-too-real boogeyman in the form of Robert Mitchum’s monstrous wolf in sheep’s clothing, Reverend Harry Powell. As elemental a horror story as one can come up with, it’s core is simplicity, the story of two children constantly on the run from the intimidating Powell, desperately searching for refuge. It’s themes are universal; the fundamental battle of good versus evil, the duality of man (hammered home with the “love” and “hate” that our evil preacher has tattooed on his hands), and the need for children to be protected from the predators of the world, lest they be eaten up. It’s part Biblical allegory and part Grimm Brother’s fairy tale, viewed through the prism of the Depression era Deep South.
Brother and sister John and Pearl Harper’s father goes to prison, but not before giving them a large sum of money he stole and swearing them to keep its location a secret. While in prison, he is a cellmate with murderous preacher Harry Powell. Powell discovers that the money has been hidden with the Harper family and upon his release he seeks out children’s mother, Willa, and woos her in order to get access to it. Of course, he soon finds out that only the children know of its whereabouts. Thus begins the psychological mind games as Powell attempts to gain control of Willa, John, and Pearl in an effort to find the money.
The Night of the Hunter was the lone film directed by famed actor Charles Laughton. It’s too bad that he never got another shot behind the camera (the film was a financial and critical failure on release) because Laughton, along with DP Stanley Cortez, obviously had a great eye for mesmerizing black and white visuals, creating scene after scene of amazingly shot and memorably staged moments. Both men show an indebtedness to the Gothic nature of the silent German expressionist films (specifically those of F.W. Murneau) and enhance it with the lighting and cinematographic styles that came with film noir, while setting it in the most Gothic of American settings, the Deep South. It’s the rarest of beasts – the Gothic expressionistic film noir fairy tale.
Key to the German films Laughton drew from was the evocation of a dreamlike feeling. During the sequence of the children rowing down the river, the artifice of the entire setpiece creates an intentionally surreal vision complete with foregrounded frogs, rabbits, and cobwebs to evoke this dream state. Later, when the children seek refuge, a house and barn are seen silhouetted against the starry sky, shaped and angled such that they lose all semblance of reality. Elsewhere, other aspects of the German style are used to create a consistent sense of disjunction and unease — the angular nature of Willa’s bedroom (with its angular, skylighted ceiling that feels straight from a Gothic church or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the wide shot of Powell on a horse in silhouette (reminiscent of a Horseman of the Apocalypse), and the general use of Dutch and low-angled shots. The film noir influences are most notable in the lighting, used to create shadows upon the character’s faces, as well as the silhouette effect mentioned above (and in some crowd scenes Laughton and Cortez completely obscure entire rows of faces in darkness).
It all works towards crafting several enduring scenes that carry a disturbing sense of dread. In addition to the aforementioned moments, there is also Powell hovering over Willa’s prone body with his knife, the struggle between Powell and the children in the basement and the “now you see him, now you don’t” moment near film’s end that also includes another amazing silhouette of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in a rocking chair holding a shotgun. Most elegiac and eerily poetic, though, is the haunting sequence where we see Willa’s dead body at the bottom of a lake, the shot lingering on her as her hair waves through the water like the plants that surround her.
While the film’s status as a “true” horror film can somewhat rest upon the technical aspects, without Mitchum’s perfect portrayal of Powell, it wouldn’t have near as much power. Mitchum makes Powell so obviously evil to the viewer yet he provides him with his natural charisma, adding a snake oil salesman’s tongue that makes it abundantly clear how he can con the locals of the town. His psychotic menacing of the children and the psychological and physical harm he heaps on poor Willa (and between this and Lolita, you have to feel sorry for the abuse heaped on the poor characters of Shelley Winters) are disturbingly sinister. Mitchum is sure to leave just enough realism in his generally over-the-top performance (just try not to laugh during the scene where he hoots and hollers after being filled with buckshot by Cooper) that he’s not merely a totemic representation of primitive evil ala slasher icon Michael Myers, but provides a good deal of depth, creating a plausible presence that is symbolic of the manipulation and abuse that can stem from authoritative parental and religious figures.
But perhaps most memorable and disturbing is simply the way that Mitchum conveys his demented musings in his Southern backwoods drawl, whether as he soliloquies with God,
Well, now. What’s it to be, Lord, another widow? How many’s it been, six? Twelve? I disremember. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if You really understand. Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord.
threateningly calls out for the children,
destroys the psyche of his new wife,
Get up. Now go look at yourself yonder in that mirror. Do as I say. Look at yourself. What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin’ children. It was not meant for the lust of men! Do you want more children, Willa?
or ominously conveys a message that we know the true meaning of.
She’ll not be back. I reckon I’m safe in promising you that.
Of all his speaking moments, none reaches the height of his dark rendering of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
There’s a palpable feeling in the way he sings these words that conveys a frightening menace and power, the twisted feeling of conviction that he carries with him and uses to justify is terrible actions. That juxtaposition gets to the root of the perverse and sick nature that compose what a true monster is made of.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #4 and Jamie’s at #21)