- Charles Laughton
- Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
- 95 min.
- Release Date
The Night of the Hunter exists in a fog of obscurity, combining murder, sex, and religion in a Southern Gothic backdrop. Released in 1955, it would become the only film directed by renowned actor Charles Laughton, who approached filmmaking in the same manner as acting, with the perceptive observations and layering of a master painter. And yet, the film is not the product of an auteur. Under the inexperienced direction of Laughton, practiced film craftsman were given creative latitude to shape the picture through an inspiring account of artistic collaboration. Laboring toward their director’s singular vision, Laughton’s cast and crew employ enduring imagery both startling and beautiful, their approach experimental yet assured. Denying known formulas, the arrangement of graceful cinematography and unnerving fairy-tale storytelling channels a cinematic dreamscape of desire and terror that awakens the unconscious, and continues to challenge the creative limits of cinema.
Part folk tale, part horror story, the film’s amalgamation of moods and methods proves arcane, even off-putting upon first assessment. Based on Davis Grubb’s novel, the film changes perspectives between characters from the point of view of a child to that of a murderer; and with these dramatic tonal switches, the stylistic approach shifts as well—in sometimes abrupt transitions: deep contrasts with noirish photography give way to bright rural landscapes from a storybook. Such rich contrasts of style remain inventive but elusive, even beguiling. As unique a manner as the film exudes, the effect retains a place in the memory of those who experience it. Motion pictures this distinctive have a way of mesmerizing an audience with their mysteries of style and narrative, instilling a seed that germinates over time and springs into an emergent affection that lingers in the viewer’s unconscious. As a result, audiences and critics alike dismissed the picture in 1955, and yet slowly, over time, the film has gained esteem so that today it is hailed as one of cinema’s greatest treasures.
Upon The Night of the Hunter’s initial appearance in France, then-critic François Truffaut called it “an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers”, and oddly he predicted that it would be Laughton’s only venture as a director. The experimentations that Truffaut identifies reside in the film’s variations in tone and style, and that some shots appear composed more for style than meaning. To match the film’s novel-like shifts in perspectives, patterns of influence also shift and range from the silent pictures of D.W. Griffith to German Expressionism to fairy-tale fantasy. Yet it all comes together to form a whole—a weirdly organic construction filled with stylistic contradictions that are anything but fortuitous. Rather, Laughton and his production crew toiled to vast lengths to achieve the film’s idiosyncratic diversity of style, and together created one of cinema’s purest examples of filmmaking as it should be: a collaborative artform.
Laughton’s professional acting career began in 1926 after a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He achieved prompt acclaim in a number of monumental character roles, bringing his grandiosity to each performance; within five years, he was the foremost presence on the English stage, later moving to Broadway and thereafter Hollywood. In his early films, he became known for bombastic characterizations, such as his Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty or Henry in The Private Lives of Henry VIII, all culminating with his signature role as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After his great performance as the Hunchback, his roles turned into easier evocations of his own personality, but no less rich, such as those in David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice and Jules Dassin’s version of The Canterville Ghost, versus the total embodiments that came before. His creative drive shifted elsewhere, toward directing for the theater. He continued to act in more commercial roles, which he said used up a mere “tenth” of his creative energies. His manager Paul Gregory knew Laughton should be directing.
Gregory believed, somewhat naïvely, that with good art comes good business, and accordingly he took creative risks as a producer. He became Laughton’s manager after seeing the actor read a chapter from the Bible’s book of Daniel on The Ed Sullivan Show, and immediately sought out the actor to propose a one-man show where Laughton would read selections from classic literature to a rapt audience. Costume-free readings of material like Don Juan in Hell, and productions of John Brown’s Body and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial followed until Gregory realized that Laughton’s formation of these shows gave evidence of the actor’s incredible talent for arrangement, or construction, and that greater directing challenges awaited in film. Gregory later received a call from a publisher friend in New York City who offered the producer a chance to read a yet-unpublished novel by first-time author Davis Grubb. Gregory read Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter and immediately after finishing the book, he wanted Laughton to put the story to film.
In the tradition of Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen, Grubb’s novel comes from a myriad of influences that represent a unique balance between a rustic style and the exploration of fantastic, even supernatural realms. Carefully distinguished scenes are divided by prose that remains cinematic in its descriptions and structure, which is perhaps why Gregory was so attracted to the novel. Grubb, who grew up on the Ohio River, marries the influence of Mark Twain and storybook writer Howard Pyle into his narrative, which puts forth an intended allegory for good and evil. Good is represented by the innocence of children and the kindness of strangers. Evil is epitomized in a murderous Preacher, whose formation came about during one of Grubb’s night owl research ventures into his seedy subjects. In a bar one night, he saw a man with ‘LOVE’ tattooed on the fingers of one hand and ‘HATE’ tattooed on the other. Grubb would declare the subject of his novel was “religious fakery”, or the misguided behavior from “religious bigotry and fanaticism”.
Laughton, however, viewed the piece to be about the defeat of childhood demons, analogous to fairy tales where the child hero defeats a wicked witch preying on children—he called it “a fairy-story, really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”. On set, Laughton regularly referred to his star Lillian Gish as “Mother Goose” to shape the actress’ maternal savior role. Laughton’s adaptation was atypical in that he wanted his film to serve the novel by maintaining its themes and imagery. To this end, James Agee seemed the perfect choice to adapt Grubb’s book. Agee had written many screenplays but had only received credit for John Huston’s The African Queen; he also worked as a novelist, film critic, and poet. He had a similar background to Grubb, having written in the Depression-era backdrop of Grubb’s novel before. Moreover, at the time he was hired, he was also writing his posthumously published book, A Death in the Family, a tale told from a child’s perspective, as much of Grubb’s novel and the film would be. The fit was natural, but perhaps Agee was too close to the material. When the writer turned in an overly detailed adaptation of Grubb’s novel that, totaling around 300 pages, clung to the author’s words, Laughton took it upon himself to rewrite Agee’s version into a script of suitable length, editing down and reinterpreting the material through story conferences between writer and director. And despite the need for Laughton to extensively rework Agee’s script, the relationship between all parties remained professional, if combustive at times. Though the resulting script was much reduced from Agee’s version, Laughton did not argue when Agee received sole screen credit, as they were Agee’s words, just revised by Laughton.
The screen story opens with a procession of deeply conflicting scenes that anticipate the film’s shifts in style. The first features the face of Lillian Gish superimposed against a starry sky, playing a yet-unnamed character who gives a Bible lesson to children to “beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing” during story time. The next scene shows children playing hide-and-seek, until one of them finds a dead body of a woman. The camera pulls away into the sky and settles back down on an old jalopy, its driver Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) talking to God. “Well now, what’s it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember.” Already the film has established its variance of childhood innocence and macabre morbidity within a few shots, and already the viewer experiences a wealth of compassion and terror.
After their father’s execution for murder and armed robbery, children John Harper (Billy Chapin) and younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are left with their rattled mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), deep in Depression-era West Virginia. Enter Powell, who calls himself “Preacher” and makes no shy claims to his godliness. Having shared a prison cell with Harper, the scheming, demonesque Preacher suspects the children know where their father stashed his loot before being captured. When he arrives in town, Preacher wins over the locals by telling his tale of the battle between love and hate, his right-hand and left-hand play involving good and evil. And while the small town onlookers are taken by his lively piousness, John alone remains guarded and suspicious. Nevertheless, Preacher slithers his way into marriage with Willa, using sanctity as lubricant, and wastes no time intimidating the children as he sniffs about for the hidden cash, which Pearl keeps hidden inside her doll. John and Pearl refuse to give in to Preacher’s questioning and threats, having promised their father they would not tell. However, when Willa hears her new husband threatening Pearl to divulge where her father hid the stolen money, Preacher kills her, leaving no one to stop his mad pursuit of the children.
Narrowly evading the Preacher’s clutches, John and Pearl escape to the river in their father’s old skiff, meandering with the current on a long journey to safety. Like something out of a storybook or a child’s dream, Mother Nature—a selection of rabbits, frogs, owls, turtles, and even spiders—watches over them with an inquisitive calmness, as Preacher slowly tracks them downriver. The small creatures no doubt identify with what it means to be hunted. Through starry nights and serene days on the river, John questions who, if anyone, he can trust. When he and Pearl arrive at the farm home of Miz Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a kindhearted old woman who has taken in many orphans of the river, he knows he has found a safe haven. The strong-headed Rachel has built her home from her own views on the Bible, allowing John and Pearl, and all of her orphans, to become independents guided by their own sense of morality—as opposed to values inscribed by a corruptible institution such as organized religion, police, or, to an extent, even parenthood. And it is Rachel’s saintly virtue that ultimately confronts Preacher (with a shotgun, no less) and leads to his demise. In the end, Rachel admits “It’s a hard world for little things.” But she knows that despite the hardships of the Harpers, children remain resilient creatures. John and Pearl will abide.
The dire, horrific circumstances of the film’s first half, embodied by Preacher’s sadistic villainy, open up to a safer realm where Rachel becomes an impenetrable obstacle, and against which Preacher seems almost buffoonish, certainly less threatening. His antagonizing, murderous characterization in the film’s first half, and the hopeful message made through children in the second, result in an uncanny combination of tonal shifts throughout the picture. Bringing further substance to the material, as the film interchanges between Preacher and the children, the background is filled with tragic characters. Willa remains sympathetic for her desperation, as even after she learns that Preacher wants her late husband’s loot, she still believes his godliness will be her salvation. And Uncle Birdie Steptoe (James Gleason), a local drunk befriended by John, promises the boy help should he ever need it; but when Preacher kills Willa and then comes for the children, Uncle Birdie hides in a bottle when the children need him most. Such complex characterizations are taken directly from Grubb’s novel and are infused with rich Southern Gothic airs.
Prior to filming, Laughton and Grubb developed a unique creative kinship, a willingness to collaborate throughout the writing and pre-production process, rare between a director and author. The two maintained a steady back-and-forth of letters discussing how the novel would be translated on film. Learning that he had studied art, Laughton asked the author to sketch certain scenes as he envisioned them. In their correspondence, Laughton’s typical request of Grubb for “sketches please” came for everything from the layout of a shot to expressions on a character’s face. The film’s events and much of the imagery draws directly from the novel, as does the dialogue, the majority of which, aside from the beginning and the ending of the film, is taken verbatim from Grubb’s text. Laughton committed himself to capturing Grubb’s verbal language on film, leaving few lines of the picture’s dialogue without correlation to a corresponding line in the text. Uncle Birdie gives a spot-on description of Willa’s corpse underwater “down there in the deep place, with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water, and that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth.”
However, while Grubb’s memorable dialogue finds its way into the film, Laughton’s most impressive feat in honoring his source was the imagery used to evoke the author’s prose on film. Consider the same example of Willa’s submerged and waterlogged body. Makeup artist Maurice Seiderman created a wax dummy for the effect, sparing no detail, not even the slit throat, for the ghostly scene. Submerged in a tank along with the car, Seiderman’s dummy looks shockingly like Shelley Winters. A hose spraying into the tank created the illusion of a current, while massive lamps give the image a wraithlike feeling of poetic beauty, yet grim unease. It remains among the most striking visuals in the film. Or consider the appearance of Preacher suddenly in Ruby’s home when he steps on her cat: “He rocketed suddenly upward before her very eyes, his twisted mask caught for one split second in the silver moonlight like a vision in a photograph negative.” Mitchum likewise bursts onscreen to achieve the film’s most startling jump, a moment perfectly in synch with the writer’s description.
Though Laughton’s ability as a film director was untested, his limited experience as a stage director made him an adept editor; his ability strip down the material at-hand to its purest form was renowned. Yet the director could not help but identify with many of the novel’s themes. While making cuts to Grubb’s text, he maintains that the novel was, in essence, a condemnation of the church. Laughton revolted from his firm Roman Catholic background in his early years, and throughout his life opposed the idea of organized religion. For all its talk of religion, for Laughton, Grubb’s novel contained a message that faith was better practiced by a kind old farm woman than a man who called himself ‘Preacher’ and justified his criminality in the name of the Bible. Laughton stresses that the blind trust for religion is a folly of the characters duped by Preacher, leading several religious groups and censors to condemn the film for its depiction of religious sanctities, such as marriage. And yet, the film ends on a pleasant Christmas morning, where religion is no longer distorted into something dangerous and perverse. At the center of the narrative is the spiritual conflict between good and evil, where Laughton emphasizes the warning that religion can be used by either party to serve their cause, but he concludes the picture with the novel’s hopeful ending.
In direct relation to religion, sexuality plays a major role both in Grubb’s text and Laughton’s adaptation, using imagery both graphic and shocking, particularly for 1955 audiences. As the sexual themes advance in tandem with themes of Christian guilt, Preacher’s murderous response to his sexual repression and Willa’s desire to cleanse her soul by marrying a holy man are explained. Preacher’s switchblade, for example, delivers a powerful phallic symbol of the character’s violent inner conflict amid his repressed drives and religious allegiance. In a scene exclusive to the film, Preacher makes his first appearance at a burlesque show; he watches both aroused and revolted, and suddenly he flips the switch on his knife within his pocket, forcing the erect blade through his coat pocket. After he and Willa marry, the lonely, former widow’s expectations for their wedding night are rejected as Preacher informs her that the night will not, nor will their marriage ever involve consummation. She accepts this, perhaps out of shame for leading a life of sin with her former, convicted criminal husband. Though Preacher resists Willa, as he kills her, he cannot help but lay atop her corpse in a moment of repressed necrophilia.
Placing Robert Mitchum in the role of Preacher was Laughton’s stroke of casting genius. Though the director had initially sought Gary Cooper, who turned the offer down for fear that it would tarnish his public image, his second choice was Mitchum. The experienced and pointedly enigmatic actor’s reputation was already questionable, as his Hollywood persona was that of a hell-raiser, but a charming one. After Mitchum’s arrest for marijuana possession in 1948, the actor’s status was cemented, and regardless of his criminal ways he remained a popular actor—if for the thrilling sense of authentic danger he brought to the screen. Playing the charming yet devilish Preacher, Mitchum’s qualities and public persona were used by Laughton to enhance the role’s sexually repressed yet religiously motivated duality. Both the actor and role contained charismatic qualities, backed by an underlying sense of calm and collected danger, yet frighteningly unhinged releases of rage and howls of almost comic, momentary losses of composure.
Mitchum is so charming yet frightening in the scene when he demonstrates the battle between Love and Hate with his two opposing hands, or when he calmly threatens John by tightening his collar in front of everyone at a picnic. His physical mannerisms are abnormally irregular, from how he contorts his body in a twisted S-curve when reaching toward the heavens just before killing Willia, to the way he bows his head in false sorrow over her death. Such menacing, controlled behavior from Preacher deteriorates when faced with emergency. Chasing the children upstairs from the cellar, they slam his fingers in the door; he yelps and then sucks on them in a moment of absurd frailty. Or when the children escape on their father’s skiff downriver and his absolute loss of composure grows into a madman’s scream. Or when he takes a shotgun blast from Rachel and runs off hollering like a wounded hound dog. His human vulnerability makes the character more than just evil, but a personification of the human beast at its worst, complete with human flaws and weaknesses.
Besides Mitchum, Laughton also cast supporting actors aligned with their roles. Lillian Gish had been a source of joy for Laughton during his tour in World War I, after watching her in Broken Blossoms several times as a young soldier. In 1962, on his deathbed, Laughton awoke from a coma to announce “I fell in love with Lillian Gish”. She seemed to embody a sweeping decency for the director, and he could envision no one else playing Rachel. Gish had since retired from acting after her experience with the dogmatic David O. Selznick on the set of Duel in the Sun, but Laughton convinced her join the cast by selling the purity of the role. Shelley Winters, one of Laughton’s acting students, was honored that her teacher offered her the part of Willa; she would play a similar role as a broken widow in 1962 for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. James Gleason, an Oscar nominee for Here Comes Mr. Jordan and lifelong performer in the theater, gave life to Uncle Birdie Steptoe. After some acclaimed experience on Broadway, nine-year-old actor Billy Chapin was cast as the hero John. And the inexperienced Sally Jane Bruce played Pearl in her sole foray into acting.
Laughton’s crew was also hand-picked to support a production grounded by artistic collaboration. As many historians have noted, Laughton’s allowances of artistic freedom are attributed to his lack of technical expertise as a film director; he knew what he wanted to see onscreen, just not how to manufacture it. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez shot The Magnificent Amberson’s for Orson Welles, although the classicized style of that film was a complete contrast from the theatrical staging and chiaroscuro light he uses in The Night of the Hunter, both testaments to Cortez’s versatility within his craft. Composer Walter Schumann was given a unique freedom as a composer when Laughton demanded that his score not re-emphasize what the actors should already be conveying, rather build on the power of the narrative by affixing an additional layer. Since ‘Laughton the Actor’ purported a reputation for being difficult and demanding, if not ruthlessly commitment to his artistic ideals, the collaborative atmosphere he created on set was unprecedented in his career. He was noted for shouting out “What do I do now” or “I’m confused” yet he was also the undisputed leader on set, a democratic captain ever open to ideas from the cast and crew. He may not have been able to articulate in filmic technical terminology what he had wanted before filming had begun, but when it was over, The Night of the Hunter was exactly as Laughton had envisioned.
Completed with a limited number of shots per scene, Laughton’s direction brings to mind the precision of a silent filmmaker. The influence of German Expressionists and the spatial understanding of D.W. Griffith were confirmed influences on Laughton, who relished the days of growing up with Gish’s many appearances in Griffith’s films (nearly forty between 1912 and 1921). Laughton encouraged his crew to see key Griffith silents prior to filming—titles like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919). His use of Griffith-esque tracking shots and crisp photography replicated what the director hoped was a cinematic classicism not attained since the Silent Era. Laughton told Gish, “When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats strait and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back or eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again.” Yet his uncommon directing approach served actors, since those were his origins; between takes, he kept the camera rolling and allowed his actors to try the scene again as he talked them through it.
Laughton avoided realism and, shooting almost entirely in the studio, in fact, enhanced the qualities of the film’s evident artifice to stress the allegorical expanse of the story through theatricality. And yet curiously, Laughton’s choices and those of his crew play out with explicit resourcefulness. His expressive environments are assembled through highly stylized set pieces that evoke a precise feeling, possibly inspired by Grubb’s expressionist conceptual sketches made for Laughton in pre-production. These are hand-made environments toiled upon by a crew that was encouraged by Laughton to improvise using their artistic abilities. Production designer Hilyard Brown had previously assisted Perry Ferguson on Citizen Kane; he and Laughton designed each set from a child’s point of view, to enhance the desired fairy tale quality. The film’s world is meant to appear unrealistic and distorted, even artificial. During the river scene, a painted backdrop does not attempt tromp l’oeil detail, rather appears like a farmhouse and barn that look like pictures from a giant pop-up storybook. Under Laughton’s strict instruction, Brown constructed sets that represent a reality that is not quite realist, but abstracted to evoke a child’s perspective of the film’s already skewed world. Cortez carried these details further through vibrant angles and lighting.
Each dynamic set piece engages the audience, and, scene after scene, they present a playful exchange of styles, forcing viewers to ask how the filmmakers created this unnatural storybook. Brown glazed nylon threads in honey to create the dew-dripped spider web on the riverbank. Cortes shot many of the interiors in the style of a German Expressionist, casting grave shadows and using high contrasts; in exterior scenes, he shot with the dreaminess of a rural haven inspired by Griffith. The cellar and A-framed bedroom were clearly detached set pieces, made small to suggest the scenes’ claustrophobia and surrounded in pitch darkness for dramatic effect, sometimes lit by no more than a single candle. The same sets could have been placed on a stage had The Night of the Hunter been a Laughton theater production. In the former example, the surrounding black of the cellar’s set piece isolates the children with the approaching Preacher; in the latter, the A-framed bedroom suggests a cathedral space that has become holy with the Preacher’s presence, certainly no place for a husband and wife to engage in “dirty” acts.
In keeping with the stylized, exaggerated quality of the picture, Preacher Harry Powell is presented as a monster both in his actions and the dialogue about him, far beyond just a twisted killer using the pretense of godliness to gain the trust of his victims. The title refers to him as a “hunter” of the “night”, not unlike a vampire. The rhetoric used by Rachel is most revealing; when Preacher retreats after being shot, she describes him like an animal to the police: “Get your state troopers out to my place. I’ve got somethin’ trapped in my barn.” The imagery evoked here suggests Preacher is some nocturnal wild animal hungry for flesh. When he chases the children up the stairs from the cellar, his arms are stretched out straight, rigid and reaching like the monster from James Whale’s Frankenstein of 1931. Likewise, in the finale, a lynch mob out for the Preacher’s blood recalls the one Whale’s film, carrying torches in the night to expel the evil from their sleepy community.
If Preacher represents a monster, Rachel is an angelic protector-storyteller of sorts, shielding the children, and the audience, from the evil that lurks in the world. Given her appearance in the film’s prologue, at first, the character seems like a meaningless device to set the narrative’s themes into place, until, more than an hour into the film, John and Pearl come to Rachel’s home, where they are saved. The camera looks up again at this moment to a starry sky, and the audience knows the children are safe from their nightmare, that the storyteller, Rachel, will protect them. In a way, The Night of the Hunter is a story told by Rachel to children, which would account for the film’s changing perspectives, and also its undeniable fairy-tale quality. When she reads aloud, she does so for the children, but she also seems to speak directly to the audience. In the final scene, Rachel addresses the audience directly, almost looking into the camera with her final words of assurance on the resilience of children: “They abide, and they endure.”
Achieving the film’s storybook effect also rests on Walter Schumann’s music. Schumann had previously worked with Laughton on a stage production of John Brown’s Body, on which he sung an eerie a cappella score with his choral group, called the Voices of Walter Schumann. When Laughton hired him again for The Night of the Hunter, their collaboration became a close working partnership, more so than most director-composer relationships. Schumann remained on set during production, writing music before a scene and playing it for the cast and crew, as if to set the mood. It has been suggested that Schumann even made vital suggestions within the script, such as how Mitchum should call for John and Pearl, saying “Chil-dren” with just the right octave inflection mid-word to make it menacing. Laughton called Schumann his “right hand” and offered the composer unparalleled control in the construction of the film, as this is a picture shaped by music. Schumann resonates the film’s paradoxical quality through musical contrasts. When Preacher is onscreen boasting his false Christian ideals, Schumann plays a “pagan” motif; when an ominous night sky suggests something sinister, he introduces a lullaby to defuse the image.
Such contrasts gave way to the film’s elusive quality, and Gregory knew that to publicize the film to American audiences the marketing approach had to be equally unique. He originally wanted to take the film on a road show, selling it in specialized screenings, versus unleashing an artistic curiosity before the entire nation and hoping it comes out all right. Gregory understood that for such an atypical picture to succeed it required an approach that was equally nonconforming. But the distributors at United Artists, who did not consider the project worthy of specialized attention, pushed for a standard approach and ultimately won; within a few short weeks after the quiet premiere, the film was placed on the bottom of a double-bill. The initial reviews received The Night of the Hunter with understandable perplexity. Though the critics were impressed with Laughton’s direction, Mitchum’s performance, the style of the production, the material left many critics unconvinced, despite the novel being a national best-seller two years prior. Laughton’s close collaboration with Grubb meant the film captured the book’s stranger qualities in enhanced visual reality, but seeing those qualities brought to life onscreen is something no audience can fully grasp in one viewing. The critic at the New York Times called the film “weird and intriguing”, though evidently puzzling as he remains indifferent; the dubious Los Angeles Herald called it simply “curious”. This typical assessment, wrought by uncertainty yet distant admiration, would grow over time into enthusiastic praise.
After production was completed on The Night of the Hunter, Laughton immediately began preparations for his next directorial effort, an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. But the commercial failure and indefinite critical reception of his first film robbed him of his artistic motivation as a director. Friends and his crew said that the film’s failure broke Laughton’s heart. Laughton gave up on a second directorial effort, and following that decision he ended his partnership with Gregory for reasons that have never been fully explained. Gregory followed through as producer on the Warner Bros. production of The Naked and the Dead, released in 1958, which was directed by Raoul Walsh into a listless WWII epic whose devotion to the source material was nil. Returning to stage productions, Gregory eventually retired from show business. Defeated, Laughton returned to the stage, made appearances in a few films like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, and then, in 1962, died of spinal cancer.
It took years for the initial bafflement over the film to pass. Gradually, a film once shamed as being too arty and employing far too many styles was seen through different eyes after New Wave cinema hit France, and the rebel filmmakers of the 1970s struck Hollywood. Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and many other filmmakers began to work in a style that Laughton predicted—a style where influences are transformed for individual purposes. With renewed perspectives from an era defined by its innovation on earlier styles, The Night of the Hunter became a lost masterpiece now rediscovered. It has since been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry’s preservation of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” films. It has also appeared on countless “best films” lists, including its number-one spot at the top of the British film magazine Sight and Sound’s most recent critics poll.
That The Night of the Hunter was Charles Laughton’s first effort as a director is remarkable, but that it was his only film behind the camera is also one of cinema’s most unfortunate tragedies. Laughton made a picture that does not wallop the viewer upon first viewing, rather cultivates with memory and time. The effect is comparable to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, in that with Laughton’s directorial debut he constructed a film so masterful, so complex, it could not be fully appreciated in its day. Each aspect of the film’s production—from the idyllic cinematography to the incredible performances, to the contrary uses of cinematic stylization and narrative—presents an interplay of opposing ideas through a sophisticated, haunting, and strangely buoyant whole. It endures as an enchanting American folk tale ripe with intricate melodrama and mythic symbolism, one that no moviegoer will soon forget.
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