The Night of the Hunter is the only film that director Charles Laughton has made. He did this for the production company Paul Gregory Productions, a relatively unknown company with only 2 productions to its name. It’s a classic film nowadays, but when it was released in 1955 it was a big flop. This mainly had to do with where the film industry was at the time and how Laughton made his film.
It was a very unstable period for cinema. This was, for example, due to the “Hollywood Blacklist”, which left several writers, directors and actors without work. To understand this, we need to take a look at political America in the 1950s. Communism was just emerging and fear of “the red danger” was prevalent throughout America. The film industry was also aware of this threat, and this list. Anyone who incorporated communist ideas into their films ended up on this list and was ignored by the entire industry.
An additional threat to cinema was the emerging medium of television. The industry’s response to this was the CinemaScope, a new widescreen format that could project a double of the aspect ratio on a screen using anamorphic lenses. As a result, many epic films began to be made (such as “Ben Hur”, “The Ten Commandments”, …) and during this period Laughton distinguished himself with his film.
Laughton did make some bad choices here. “The Night of the Hunter” is a black and white film and at the time, people were trying to move away from that. Also, the aspect ratio is unaffected by the CinemaScope. In addition, it was a film for adults, in which the leading role was partly reserved for children. For these and other reasons, the film flopped big time. But it’s now considered as a classic, because the United States Library of Congress called the film “culturally, historically and aesthetically relevant” in 1992.
What is also very striking about the film is that it is a kind of tribute to the silent film, especially referring to grandmaster Griffith. You will notice this very clearly in the style. Like Griffith, Laughton uses grim, expressionistic black-and-white cinematography and an archaic camera technique, the so-called “iris down” camera. Another clear reference to Griffith is Laughton’s choice to cast Lillian Gish in the role of Mrs. Cooper. This actress was one of Griffith’s protégés during the silent film period.
The plot of “The Night of the Hunter” is based on the novel of the same name by David Grubb, which tells the true story of Harry Powers, hanged in 1932 for the murder of 2 widows and 3 children. In the film we are introduced to preacher Harry Powell, phenomenally played by Robert Mitchum, who seduces and kills people to get money. The criminal Harper has hidden this sum somewhere, and only his children know where the money is. The preacher is so terrifying because of his fundamentalism, distaste for women, puritanical behaviour and murderous psychosis.
The film has an expressionistic character, and there is a lot of symbolism in it. For example, in the beginning, Mrs. Cooper and her children are depicted as if they were speaking directly to the people from heaven. Another aesthetic scene is when the children flee from Powell across the river. This environment is presented very vividly by regularly showing close-ups of animals along the river. The river thus becomes, as it were, a Garden of Eden on the water.
Another element that is also very prominent in the film, in addition to the aesthetic, is fear. You mainly see this in the personification of evil in the figure of the preacher, but also in the camera techniques. Shadows are used a lot, and the way the camera sometimes switches between two shots can give you goosebumps. Like when the camera switches from the old man fishing to the car with the dead body of Willa Harper in the river, for example.
“The Night of the Hunter” left me with mixed feelings. I have read a lot of criticism online and opinions were certainly divided there too. Some thought the film was unworthy of classic status, while others praised it to the sky. Still others couldn’t really form an opinion about it, or drifted somewhere between good and bad. I think this is mainly because the film is so difficult to place and has quite a few illogical plot twists. The film contains an accumulation of elements and no single element seems to dominate. Somebody thinks of it as a horror film, or others a children’s film, for example, or an adult drama, a film noir or even a fairy tale. Christian symbolism is also very prominent. Personally, I think it is mainly a horror film, but on the other hand, it also has something of a fairy tale. This is mainly due to the way Laughton views the world, through children’s eyes.
What many agree on is the unparalleled style of “The Night of the Hunter”. The magnificent images, very beautiful photography, the use of shadows and light and the fairytale settings are breathtakingly beautiful and that is why I think this film is certainly worth its classic status. I have to admit, what many critics also say is that the film diminishes after the first hour. In the first hour it fully realises his potential, but then it collapses a bit. Yet this last, lesser part could not affect my admiration. It is and remains a very good film in my opinion.