In past Free Film School lectures, when it came time to focus on one film in particular (rather than a subgenre or a director’s body of work), it would be a hugely notable classic like Citizen Kane or Vertigo, i.e. legitimate international classics that often grace top-ten lists, and are often taught in film school.
And while great films are, well, great, this week I’d like to offer – as part of a celebration of horror movies – a classic film that is rarely on top-ten lists, and rarely gets the intellectual attention I feel it deserves. This week, we’re going to be looking at one of the best horror movies ever made. This week, we’ll be taking a brief look at Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter, easily a great American film.
Why is The Night of the Hunter so often neglected by the world’s cinematic intelligentsia? Well, to be sure, it’s not entirely neglected; Roger Ebert famously included it in his long series of Great Movies, and the ever-impressive Criterion Collection has put out a rather impressive DVD and Blu-Ray of it. But it’s rarely thought of in the same thought as heavy hitters like Ikiru or Casablanca. Heck, it usually falls by the wayside even when horror classics are announced, usually supplanted by flicks like Psycho and Peeping Tom.
It must be how… odd… the film is. It’s not a hellbent kind of surreal weirdness (as one would see in, say, the films of David Lynch), but it does seem to take place in a universe that is somewhere just a little off-center. Like Dracula before it, The Night of the Hunter is stagey and theatrical and affected. But, unlike Dracula (which was filmed like a stage production), it’s more certainly coming from a more cinematic place.
It’s one of the earlier melodramas I can think of that actually manages to grasp the rules of cinema, use original material and create an intentionally artificial universe for the action to take place in. A heightened universe, if you will. A place where killers can stalk children, and have it feel less like an evil criminal committing a criminal act, and more like a haunted house some to life.
The film also stars Robert Mitchum, who, despite being an amazing actor, occupies a strange space in the Hollywood firmament. Drawn to scary, off-kilter roles, the handsome Mitchum is better known for playing killers and psychopaths in films like Cape Fear and Out of the Past. Jimmy Stewart he is not. He was, to make a perhaps-inappropriate comparison, the Christopher Walken of his day. Walken is a versatile actor, but most certainly idiosyncratic, often cast as the oddball heavy in quirky films.
The film was dark. It was off-putting. It put children in peril. It drowned a woman. It had some over-the-top biblical preaching, both sincere and ironic. It was part soap opera, part horror film, and even had a bizarre streak of black humor. It was daring. It was clearly the result of a visionary first-time director, trying out some new tools in the toolbox (indeed, it would prove to be the only film Laughton would direct). In 1955, both audiences and critics rejected The Night of the Hunter. It was just too intellectually and aesthetically oblique for most audiences. Not ambitious enough to be surrealism, and certainly not clean enough to be mainstream, it was declared neither fish nor fowl, and the flick went unnoticed.
It’s time to discover it again, my lovelies. Let’s take a look.
The story: Mitchum plays a man named Harry Powell, a self-proclaimed man of God, and legitimate psychopath. He has the words LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles in the film’s most enduring image; the LOVE/HATE tattoos have been imitated numerous times throughout pop culture from The Simpsons to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Powell has a good scam going: He travels the country marrying rich widows, and then murdering them for the small inheritances.
One night he shares a cell with Peter Graves, who tips him off to a soon-to-be local widow (his own wife) who may be sitting on a stolen fortune. Powell soon seeks out Willa Harper (the awesome Shelley Winters) who has two small children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Willa is a brassy and open woman who, on their wedding night, is stunned and dismayed to learn that Powell will not consummate their marriage. It won’t be long before she’s tied to a car in the bottom of a river.
The scene of Winters dead under the water is one of the indelible images of horror cinema. Powell soon becomes the spooky, wicked stepfather to the orphaned kids, and presses them for the location of this hidden fortune he knows about. The kids know, but they’re sure as heck not telling this guy.
Eventually the two children become the main characters of the story, and much of the film is devoted to a dark mirror version of Huckleberry Finn, as the kids flee down the river in a boat, knowing their mother is dead, with the killer in pursuit. They eventually come into the care of a kind of hysterical local lady played by silent film legend Lillian Gish. Eventually Gish and Mitchum must do a sort of battle to protect the children. I will not tell you how the film ends.
Stylized, weird, and scary, The Night of the Hunter is just as good as The Silence of the Lambs, or any other such “thriller” from a later vintage.
The Night of the Hunter, in addition to being initially rejected for its oddness was also plagued with several production troubles. Laughton, for one, had trouble dealing with the two children, giving a lot of their direction to Mitchum who was, ironically, much more comfortable with the kids. The screenplay is credited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and important film critic James Agee (who may warrant a Free Film School article himself), who, by 1955, was nearing the end of his life, and was a hopeless drunk. Rumors have circulated that Agee wrote a draft, which was pretty much changed entirely by another author, perhaps Laughton.
What’s more, Charles Laughton was already a respected actor, having played in roles as diverse as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and dozens of others. He would go on to play a notable role in Stanley Kubrick’s awesome and clunky 1960 epic Spartacus. I have not been able to find any reason as to why he wanted to try his hand at directing. Perhaps the muse merely struck. An acerbic and striking actor of notable girth, Laughton proved to be a formidable presence. Perhaps his well-known screen personae worked against him. Audiences likely expected Laughton to make the kind of film he would himself star in, and not the dark Normal Rockwell painting he presented. Maybe audiences wanted an historical epic. What they got was an American classic that went unrecognized.
Make no mistake; The Night of the Hunter is an American classic. It broke new ground in terms of cinematic aesthetics, and is undeniably scary. In terms of its sheer cinematic strength, it’s just lovely to look at. The film was shot by the same cinematographer who shot The Magnificent Ambersons, and it’s full of stark expressionistic shadows. There’s one shot in particular that many remember well: Mitchum is standing at the top of a staircase calling to the children. This shadowy shot of a darkened boogieman has been reused literally hundreds of times in subsequent horror films. To audiences who were raised on a steady diet of thrillers and horror movies, this kind of shot is usual and expected. But imagine sitting in a theater in 1955, and seeing something like that for the first time. How odd, how off-putting, how terrifying it must have been.
And that tone. That marvelous asymmetrical tone. Picture, if you will, being raised on movies like Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, or the squarer film of Frank Capra. Now imagine a film that feels like Tim Burton had merged with John Huston, and went back in time to make a horror movie for grown-ups, but featured children. That might give you an idea of the minor firestorm that The Night of the Hunter set off. Not boldly expressionistic, but definitely not realistic, The Night of the Hunter occupied, as I said, that weird aesthetic middle ground that movies had not yet traversed.
In a way, this bold tonal creation is the film’s most significant contribution to the world of cinema. You may find that most films these days, especially summer blockbusters, are fantasy and sci-fi films that are laden with superpowered beings and magical worlds. These films rarely take place in the “real” world, usually opting to alter the universe in a subtle way, allowing for the fantastical to exist. Take a look at the recent Batman movies. Gotham City may look realistic, and it may purport to be a real world, but the city itself is a little too over-designed, a little too futuristic, a little too expressionistic to be possible. The important thing about the new Gotham City is that it’s the kind of world that’s capable of containing a Batman.
The Night of the Hunter contains a ghoulish and amazing character in “Rev.” Harry Powell, who is one of the great creations of genre cinema. Laughton, perhaps sensing that the character would be too brutal or sensationalistic if place in the real world, decided to make this film in a slightly bent fashion. He remade the world to fit this demonic preacher. Sure, many films remade the world in the past; a lot of German horror films from the 1920s were near-surreal dreamscapes of bent and expressionistic imagery. Indeed, many musicals take place in a parallel universe wherein people all seem to know lyrics and choreography spontaneously. This is the very nature of melodrama. But those films were joyously and openly artificial; they reveled in cinema’s ability to create a false world. The Night of the Hunter was the first to really strike this notion in such a subtle way. All melodramas that followed could be seen as spiritual successors.
All this intellectualizing would be moot, however, if The Night of the Hunter was not a great film as well. It is. Any modern teen, however jaded and inexperienced with movies, can sit in front of this and be quietly blown away.
In more recent years, the film has finally received the recognition that eluded it back in 1955. Powell is now often seen on top-ten lists of cinema’s scariest villains. AFI now has it in some of its famous top-100 lists. As I said, Criterion gave it the star treatment, and it’s even included in the famously populist IMDb top-250, which tends to honor recent action films over old classics (although it is listed at a relatively low 173, in between Million Dollar Baby and Donnie Darko). This film is one of many examples that teach us how films that are rejected and pilloried and even poorly reviewed upon their initial release can still grow to be classics. In the case of The Night of the Hunter, I think it was just ahead of its time.
An odd horror film made by an actor, directing the only time in his career, and rejected by audiences. Now yours for the chills. Go for it.