Charles Laughton | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 12
“The [box office] failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it”
Box office gross is one of the methods most often used to summarise a film’s success and standing, and yet it’s one of the most useless markers of quality — and quotes like the above, from Terrence Rafferty in his article “Holy Terror” for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter (and available online here), prove why. This is an exceptional film, by turns beautiful, funny, and not merely scary, but terrifying. If Hollywood movies can be art — and I think we know they can — then this is surely a foremost example.
Based on the 1953 Southern Gothic novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter sees convict Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) attempt to find the hidden robbery haul of his former cellmate, by inveigling his way into the man’s family posing as a preacher. While the mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the lies, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is more suspicious, and tries to protect himself and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), while keeping the money hidden.
The story is largely told from John’s perspective. It’s a big tale to put on small shoulders, full of complex emotions and sometimes difficult themes (per Rafferty, “those venerable American subjects: fear, sex, money, and religion”), but Chapin bears it well. I guess this is one of the reasons why groups including the BFI recommend it as a must-see for kids. Although it’s dark and grim, it rarely wavers from the John’s point of view — it’s an induction into the harshness of the adult world for the two young siblings; a harshness the sweet, innocent community they come from does nothing to prepare them for.
In another piece in Criterion’s booklet, “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee” (online here), Michael Sragow reckons the film is a “meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions”. I couldn’t have put it better myself (hence the quote). John is also the only one to see the truth of Powell — as, of course, do we — which completely ties in to how it can feel to be both a child and an older sibling: adults are dumb and don’t see the truth that children do; and younger siblings need protecting because they can be easily persuaded to the adults’ side (as Pearl almost is). Although it’s a tough film in many ways, this depiction of childhood, and at least one aspect, the loss of innocence that comes when you realise the world isn’t all fluffy and safe, is well captured.
Don’t think it’s too kid-friendly, though. Rafferty asserts that it’s “among the greatest horror movies ever made”, while Sragow thinks it’s the “intimate observations of the children’s psychology” we just discussed that “make the suspense almost unbearable.” Without once resorting to blatant horror techniques, the film builds a quiet and implacable sense of fear. The overall effect is one less of terror and more dread. It’s best described as chilling, which is so much scarier than the occasional jump.
And yet, as Rafferty explains, “the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter… is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.” I wouldn’t say that humour is one of the film’s defining characteristics, to be honest, but it does undercut its villain. He’s not some unstoppable supernatural creature, but a man who can trip over while chasing you up the stairs, and so on. In some respects it’s this very ordinariness that makes him so scary: however much they creep you out during the film itself, you know there’s no such thing as vampires or werewolves or ghosts. There are Powells in the world, though; an everyday evil that you might not see coming, but can still get you. Brr.
It’s also stunningly shot — not just beautiful, but routinely incredible. It has imagery that instantly sears itself on your brain, with gorgeous lighting and perfect composition. Whatever else the film has to offer (and that’s a lot), it’s exceptional just to look at. That it’s the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton may be a crying shame, because on this evidence — not just the pictures, of course, but the entire picture — we’ve missed out.
In my 2013 top-ten, I described The Night of the Hunter as “darker than a long night of the soul”. That’s too good an expression to not repeat, partly because I think it sounds good, and partly because I can’t think of another way to succinctly summarise the film’s unique feel. I’m not convinced it’s a great film for children, not because they need protecting from the darkness of the world, but because it’s almost too good — it’s a great portrait of childhood, but perhaps one best appreciated in hindsight. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen it until adulthood. Whenever you catch it, this is a film of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty.
It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.