BFI Gothic Season – The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Film history is littered with classics that were reviled and vivified upon initial release. Take Now Voyager, an early melodrama which during its 1942 release was dismissed as romantic bilge, now considered as an early precursor of the sly social satires of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. The reverberating strains of Carol Reed’s bleak post war discourse The Third Man may now be considered a classic, embodied by Orson Welles personification of the conflicts distinctive moral quagmires, but audiences at the time wanted to escape from the horrors of the war and not wallow in it’s still exposed wounds. Notoriously (at least around these parts) 2001: A Space Odyssey was incomprehensibly rejected, with no less a figure than Pauline Kael sneering that the picture was ‘monumentally unimaginative’ Even Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the recently anointed Greatest Film In History© was scorned and mocked upon initial release, with scribbling hacks proclaiming that the master had lost his way with a lacklustre piece that was low on thrills, and which performed the unforgivable transgression of revealing its twist far too early in the narrative, in yet another example of the filmmaker being decades ahead of the era’s cultural consensus. The strain running through these examples however is that they are films which sprung from the imagination of established talents, figures whom have had the venerable ability to erect a protective shell against the cruel barbs of the chattering classes, a critical callus if you will which wasn’t available to Charles Laughton directorial debut The Night Of The Hunter which was apprehensively released by Universal back in 1955. Laughton was a character actor with decades of film and stage experience behind him, a thespian of the calibre of Olivier and Gielgud whom were his generational peers, a modest man who finally took to directing late in his career with this deeply atmospheric American fable, the critics crucified it and he refused to ever step behind the camera again. Now over fifty years it is widely considered as a post-war classic with some of the most haunting beautiful cinematography ever crafted on a Hollywood sound-stage, and as soon as I heard that the BFI were developing a ‘Gothic’ minded film season this was the first picture that leapt to mind as the absolute cinematic iteration of that historical phrase.
In a career defining role Robert Mitchum smoulders with the stench of brimstone as the sinisterly bewitching figure of Reverend Harry Powell, a tattoo knuckled preacher who prowls the monochrome canvass of the smouldering American south. One part snake-oil salesman who frequents the local brothels and bars to two-part miserable huckster Powell is arrested by the authorities for vehicle theft and a number of other minor transgressions, and finds himself sharing a cell with a recently apprehended bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper has the rather unfortunate tendency to confess to crimes in his sleep, and soon Powell seizes upon a scheme to relieve the bereaved Harper family of the hidden proceeds of his bank robbery after the unfortunate wretch is dispatched to his maker via the gallows. Ma Harper (a quivering and shame fuelled Shelly Winters) soon falls for the righteous pastor, leaping at the chance to absolve her soul for her previous husbands sinful transgressions, but her young children John (Billy Chapain) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) do not trust this new interloper, with the former in particular seeing through his serpentine charm and understanding his real ambitions towards them….
As those lengthy noir stacked expressionist shadows lengthened during the war by this point in American cinema the industrial shift to Technicolor was in full stream, as the increasing battle against TV prompted Hollywood moguls to seek out new prestige methods to entice audiences back in the auditoriums from the comfort of their front rooms. In many ways then this 1955 effort is one of the last masterpieces, at least from a cinematography level, of the first century of the format. Sure there have been breathtakingly shot B&W films since then and the format isn’t entirely the preserve of resource poor independent productions such as the recent Mumblecore movement (The Artist springs to mind, as does just last years Nebraska) but this was one of the most lyrical deployments of those monochrome shadows and the space between light and dark, a position which captures the films central duel of good versus evil. The film was shot by Stanley Cortez who also helmed The Magnificent Ambersons for Welles a decade earlier, was one of the great cameramen of the era along with Greg Toland and Boris Kaufman, just drown in this dazzlingly magical sequence where our tiny protagonists flee from the devil and punt out into metaphorical waters;
Unsurprisingly, that sequence is pretty much on the core syllabus of any film school, and I’d select as pretty much the ultimate cinematic representation of the term ‘gothic’ in all its mysterious, uncanny, spectral glory. Alongside the brushstrokes of shadow and light scenes are punctuated with a slight camera push into the action, to incrementally pull the audiences ear into the dialogue – a sly technique I’m picking up more examples when I return to the films of this era – and of course the cinephile favourite of deep focus staging (as seen in the still below) with all aspects of the visual frames in crisp presentation, coordinating the relations of the characters and a harbinger of their fates to come.
As well as the photography the film has two other aces up its sleeve – Mitchum’s glowering career best presence, and the saintly beatific visage of Lillian Gish, one of silent cinemas most rapturous faces, and like all great cinema evidence a DNA connective membrane to earlier triumphs of the form. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before but movie stars of this era have a different aura than they do now, some of them endured early lives of poverty with experiences alien to the current industry, so when Mitchum appears on-screen as that serpentine snake-oil spouting drifter it’s not to difficult to see the honesty and reality in that performance. He spent years penniless and destitute drifting through the prairies, working summers on farms and jumping the box-car trains in a furtive search for shelter and the next hot meal, so he’s marinated in a genuine rural American history which weeps from every pore of his ink penned knuckles. As his spiritual foe Lillian Gish is undiluted Christian grace, a symbol of decency and fragile honesty, slightly smeared with a frontier frostiness which isn’t afraid of the bruising tedium of tending crop and shouldering shotguns to protect her kin. It’s no surprise that the film coaxes out such terrific performances given that director Charles Laughton was a such a immense talent, one of the great characters of his generation who was comfortable and understood the definitions of both stage and screen, which maybe explains the curious theatrical slants of the films expressionist staging and visual schemata, as the film is all about composition rather than camera movement or scene specific editing rhythms.
We critics can be a merciless breed and recent events testify the greatest actors can be unstable, mercurial and tortured spirits, so the in retrospect pillaring of the film deeply wounded Laughton and he never directed again, a real waste of potential but at least we have this singular, eerie masterpiece. He therefore joins the pantheon of one film talents who produced extraordinary work yet never stepped back behind the viewfinder, including Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, Brando’s One Eyed Jakes, Saul Bass’s insectoid Phase IV and the dude who made Manos: The Hands Of Fate as a drunken bet that ‘any fool can make a god-damn movie’. I think the film has dated a little even when balancing its fairy tale allusions, it very much wears its heart on its sleeve with a rather untextured wrestle of good versus evil which seems a little uncomplicated these days, but the films simmering, starlight atmosphere makes for a heady gothic brew, a biblical incantation of innocence lost;