THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
The Night of the Hunter is remarkable both for its extraordinary atmosphere and visual palette, as for its willingness to question values that no other films did in the 1950s. Charles Laughton crafts the film into something akin to an Expressionist fairy-tale. Robert Mitchums arrival in town, for instance, is seen as the passing of a giant illuminated black hat across the window of the parlour the children play in. Some images are genuinely striking like the discovery of Shelley Winterss body in a Model T at the bottom of the river, her hair billowing in the current among the weeds there. However, it is when the film joins the childrens journey down the river that it enters into an almost a dream-like fairy-tale landscape. Shots are foregrounded by strikingly hyper-emphasised spider webs, rabbits and frogs. Songs on the soundtrack echo in the ethereal beauty of a childs voice. Like something out of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), barns and houses are starkly shadow-lit against the landscape; sheep are seen in a field outlined by the frame of a foregrounded wooden fence; and Robert Mitchums demon pursuer is seen only as a distant shadow on horseback crossing against the skyline.
Charles Laughton is a remarkably adept director. He is alerted to the way small town people talk and gets some fine performances here from Shelley Winters and Evelyn Varden. The small town scenes are remarkable for their turning inside out of the assumptions that America made about itself in the 1950s. The trite, banal homilies that would be seen as a source of comfort in a film by say Frank Capra are instead turned around to be used as something immensely threatening by Robert Mitchums silky conman. Robert Mitchum gives a dominatingly intense performance the scene where he takes young Sally Jane Bruce onto his lap and nearly succeeds in charming the whereabouts of the money out of her, deliberately manipulating her innocence, is a very scary one. This, alongside Cape Fear (1962) which also featured Mitchum as a demon figure undermining smalltown values, is the finest piece of acting that Mitchum, usually an actor in Westerns during this era, has ever done.
What seems to light the film up is a turbulent struggle between Baptist hellfire and suppressed passion. Its central figure sways adults with an almost sexual passion in his crazed rantings about damnation. We are never certain whether Robert Mitchum believes what he says or whether he is a conman he certainly seems to believe it when it comes to women whom he is drawn to but then rebukes upon any show of licentiousness. In one of the most striking running subplots, he spurns Shelley Winterss request for conjugal fulfilment and with an extraordinary moment of masochism she comes to the self-realisation that she has been brought together with him to be purified. The end of the story has been criticised for its sentimentalism but it is not that inappropriate, for the film is about deliverance from evil and a physical journey into redemption. What better a place for the children to be delivered to from its turbulent cesspit of Baptist guilt than to a redemption that resembles the purity of a Christmas card setting? In an extraordinary moment near the end, Robert Mitchum sits waiting by a fence singing hymns and the childrens deliverer Lillian Gish joins him, both opposing sides momentarily singing together. The entire film hums with this dialectic between twisted Baptist repression and hellfire damnation and the innocence of children.
The film was badly remade by director David Greene as a tv movie, Night of the Hunter (1991) with Richard Chamberlain in the Mitchum role and Diana Scarwid in the Shelley Winters part. The tv movie reduced the film to merely a thriller and lacked any of Charles Laughtons style.