Few films are so exemplary of the powers and ways of cinephilia than Charles Laughton's sole directing effort, a dazzlingly unclassifiable dark fairy tale passing itself off as a piece of Southern Gothic. Generally disregarded on its 1955 release, it gained stature with time as critics and audiences started falling under its unique, expressionist spell and its uneven but powerfully intoxicating mix of high-art symbolism and exploitation.
Borderline theatrical in its use of highly stylized sets and oblique camera set-ups, The Night of the Hunter is a journey into the heart of darkness of human evil as lived by two innocents who hold the key to a secret they have pledged never to reveal. The story is actually inspired by the real-life case of a West Virginia "Bluebeard" of the 1930s, who travelled around seducing rich widows then killing them for their money; here, Harry Powers becomes Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a false preacher who learns from a prison inmate the proceeds of the bank heist that landed him on death row are well hid, and insinuates himself into the family to find where the money is. The young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jean Bruce) know but won't tell, leading Powell to murder their mother (Shelley Winters) and give chase as the kids escape downriver.
As evil surrounds the children, the movie turns bleakly oppressive, installing a masterful atmosphere of dread that Mr. Laughton will keep taut until the ending; it is only when the kids are taken up by the kindly Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish) that the clouds begin to part and light floods into this parable stunningly photographed in expressionist chiaroscuro by the great Stanley Cortez. Not everything in The Night of the Hunter works; from the rushed ending to the strong overly religious symbolism sprinkled throughout, there are a fair amount of wrinkles very typical of the debut feature. But the magic conjured by Mr. Laughton's stubborn vision is such that those mishaps merely strengthen the film and give it an edge and a personality unlike any achieved in its contemporaries. Proving directing actors know best how to elicit career-best performances from fellow actors, Mr. Mitchum is electrifying and Ms. Gish every inch his match, even though they have but two scenes together in the whole of the film's arc. An oddity The Night of the Hunter may have been in its time, but if it remains one today it is for its sheer directorial flair and the unparalleled uniqueness of its approach.
Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters; Lillian Gish; James Gleason, Evelyn Warden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jean Bruce, Gloria Castilo.
Director, Charles Laughton; screenplay, James Agee, from the novel by Davis Grubb The Night of the Hunter; cinematography (b&w), Stanley Cortez; music, Walter Schumann; art director, Hilyard Brown; wardrobe, Jerry Bos; editor, Robert Golden; producer, Paul Gregory (Paul Gregory Productions), USA, 1955, 89 minutes. (US distributor, United Artists; current rights holder, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)
Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 27th 2011.