Nothing could be more remarkable than the fact that an actor known for his vanity and his brilliance was capable of making a film like Night of the Hunter. But Charles Laughton’s film is a classic, containing one of the very best performances of Robert Mitchum’s career as the murderous Preacher Powell.
A commercial, if not a critical failure, the film got such a poor public reception that Laughton was never asked to direct again. Now, however, this 1955 movie looks better and better, and much more than the “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale” that Laughton called it. It’s also a complex study of good and evil, innocence and betrayal, with the strength and power of the best of E T A Hoffmann’s tales.
The protagonists are children remorselessly pursued by an evil, hymn-spouting stranger who, having murdered their mother (Shelley Winters), seeks to steal from and kill them too. One of them at least knows that the word “hate”, written on the fingers of the preacher’s left hand, is more appropriate than the word “love” tattoed on his right.
But we, like the adults, are less certain that they are right to run away down the river into the Mississippi swamplands. This is, after all, Robert Mitchum and he can’t be all that bad, can he? In the end he is, and they are saved only by the appearance of the fairy godmother figure of the spinster Rachel, played by Lillian Gish, the Christian protector of strays, whether children or animals.
This is a moral film that nevertheless gives us a tantalising glimpse of something akin to purgatory. It’s far more frightening than most horror films, though it defies the genre tag, whether as thriller, horror or allegory. Laughton, a superb actor himself, was able to draw such a devastating performance out of Mitchum, and to create such a satisfying whole only with the help of a good team. Stanley Cortez, who shot Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, was one of the last great black and white cinematographers. Here, he sought and achieved an extraordinary atmosphere of menace, mixed with the naked beauty of the Deep South during the Depression. Walter Schumann’s music was exceptional, too. But Laughton had to make the choices, and he did so with unerring skill.
He was generous about Mitchum, despite the star’s celebrated put-down of himself – “Paint my eyes on my eyelids, man, and I’ll walk through it”. Laughton called him “one of the best actors in the world, a tender man and a great gentleman”.
The only thing that really troubled Laughton were the children. He didn’t like them, and Mitchum was left to help with their performances. Perhaps this is why their scenes look a little as if they come from another film. But even this works since they come from a totally different emotional world from the adults.
The script for the film was more Laughton’s than that of James Agee, whose last film this was always thought to be. In fact, Laughton did turn to him for help but the two could not agree, with Laughton complaining that Agee’s version was “as big as a telephone book”.
Night Of The Hunter, though not without its faults – chiefly when it becomes a little too obviously arty – is one of those films that seems totally right from beginning to end.
As the title suggests, most of it was shot at night, and thus the hymn that forms the film’s ironic refrain becomes that much more chilling: “Leaning, leaning! Safe and secure from all alarms! Leaning, leaning! Leaning on the everlasting arms!”.