The Night of the Hunter

(Charles Laughton, USA, 1955)


Whenever The Night of the Hunter gets near water, its poetic heart truly palpitates. Two of its many bold, unforgettable images take place deep within or atop water: the dead body of Willa (Shelley Winters) underwater, her hair streaming, "being kissed by the fishes" as a song by John Cale and Bob Neuwirth evokes it; and the protracted passage of two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), down river in a boat, watched over by an array of wildlife in close-up.

Not the least remarkable thing about these watery assemblages is their way of melding realistic detail with the absolute artifice of sets, back-projected screens, carefully stage-managed inserts, and so on. At the height of the down-river sequence we pass in a cut from (as Isabelle Jordan noted in a 1982 Positif) documentary views of nature caught by a second-unit team to the obvious, indeed flagrant expressionism of a minimally dressed studio. And it is precisely at that usually forbidden intersection of natural and artificial worlds that the sui generis surrealism of The Night of the Hunter is born.

How to encapsulate the uniqueness of this project, the only film directed by the great actor of stage and screen, Charles Laughton? Paul Hammond once called it "a freak, an anomaly, an oasis", and he wasn’t kidding. Passing in the blink of an eye from psycho-thriller (fed by Fritz Lang and anticipating Hitchcock) to Flannery O’Connor-style exposé of the hypocritical hothouse of the religious American South; from black comedy to the sweetness and sentimentality of the silent cinema era (thanks to the inspired casting of D. W. Griffith’s star Lillian Gish); from an essay on the sex drives to a Freudian melodrama (or family romance) of our fraught identification with shifty parental figures – The Night of the Hunter burns up bits and pieces of many genres in order to evade any single generic label.

To what imaginable audience was Laughton pitching this curve ball? The mass audience lured in by suspense and action? The burgeoning arthouse crowd of inner-city sophisticates in the ’50s, hip to its literary and aesthetic borrowings? Or – a mad but inescapable thought while watching the end result – an audience of children eager to be terrified?

The Night of the Hunter exists in that cinematic no-man’s-land of fairy tales for adults (as Sergio Leone coined the phrase, almost thirty years later, for his Once Upon a Time in America [1984]). It joins some of the oddest and most quietly intense works in cinema history – from Fritz Lang’s picaresque pirate-adventure yearn Moonfleet (1955) to Jacques Demy’s gruesome rendition of The Pied Piper (1971) – in seeming to invoke a cinema for children, a childlike cinema that cannot actually be marketed to very young audiences.

And the distance is not so great from The Night of the Hunter to Philippe Grandrieux‘s Sombre (1998), where the trauma of serial murder is once again refracted through the consciousness of screaming kids for whom mythic ogres and terrified Madonnas express all the tricky negotiations to be made upon entering the scary adult world of society.

The Night of the Hunter is an astonishingly sexual film for its time. Everyone in this movie is busy doing it, thwarting it (in themselves or others) or talking about it – a saturation of the fiction by sex that perhaps could only have come from a gay artist like Laughton.

The story canvases at least four sites or types of sexual experience – we could call them modes of desire. The first is the twisted, perverse sexuality of the demented preacher Powell (Robert Mitchum), whose libidinal impulse, whenever aroused, is immediately transferred into the murderous rage expressed in the "erections" of his flick knife. (Davis Grubb’s original novel is not subtle on this point: not only do we read that Powell’s hand "stole under the blanket and wound round the bone hasp of the faithful knife" but that he likes to "rub the knife in his pocket with sweating fingers".)

The second site is the longing felt by the widow Willa – it too transformed, by Powell’s thundering wedding night rejection, into a hysterical carnival of religiously inflected shame and self-abnegation. No one can play sublimated sex-drive quite like Winters: in a hallucinatory scene of old-style worship, her body appears to be gripped by a trance. Willa’s mode of feminine desire is embodied in a less full-blown, adolescent form by Ruby (Gloria Castilo).

Then there are those who appear to no longer engage in sex – or have never done so – but comment upon its effects and fortunes. Laughton takes the familiar stereotype of the prurient town stickybeak in Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) and makes of her someone whose loud, seen-it-all moralism causes discomfort among her civic-minded friends (sex is the province of men, she declares, and with her husband she "lied there thinking about canning"), and eventually mutates into lynch-mob frenzy when her delusions about Powell are shattered.

Rachel (Gish) is the only figure untouched by the ravages of sexual repression. She is a spinster who has devoted herself to nurturing young strays – "it’s a hard world for little things", she solemnly remarks, as she observes the savage pecking order of animals. But, although removed from the sphere of sexual activity, she is wise and even affectionately whimsical about it: observing a teenage girl’s infatuations, she comments that a "tricky mouth and a full moon" will lead to the inevitable, and she will likely "be left with the consequences".

The Night of the Hunter finds its greatest intensity in dealing with the final mode of sexual experience – the "demon lover" syndrome. Female desire for a murderous male beast – another fairy tale element – permeates the film. This politically incorrect complex is summarised most drolly when Willa, on her wedding night, finds Powell’s infamous pocket knife: "Men!" she indulgently exclaims.

Although Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s expressionist visuals have long been acclaimed, the highly innovative nature of the film’s soundtrack is less well recognised. Here too, as on every level of the film, artifice rules. The Night of the Hunter is an early, supreme example of an integrated sound design mingling voices, noises and a richly varied score by Walter Schumann.

As with the imagery, Laughton and his team altered the sounds, and their conventional functions, in startling ways. Two aspects of this process are particularly remarkable. Firstly, the incessant use of song.

The Night of the Hunter contains more singing than some musicals, covering nursery rhymes, religious chants, folk tunes and a haunting song of loss ("Pretty Fly") for little Pearl. Ultimately, it is as if the very fabric of the surreal universe created by Laughton is woven in and through the magical effects and properties of singing – especially when we reach the unlikely duet of Rachel and Powell, during their tense nocturnal stand-off, harmonising to "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" – one of the most disquieting and wondrous scenes in all cinema.

Vocalising also takes another, completely contrary direction in the film – towards guttural, animal-like noise, devoid of language. The best sign of how far Mitchum was willing to go for Laughton is not his celebrated moments of physical slapstick, but his readiness to howl, yelp and emit childlike noises from somewhere deep inside his body.

But, even when more conventional dialogue is involved, speech patterns and idioms are boldly stylised in The Night of the Hunter – placing it in the rather forgotten traditions of the most progressive theatrical, radiophonic and filmic experiments (by Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky, Arch Oboler) of American culture in the ’40s and ’50s. Whether these voices dispense sing-songy proverbs or whip themselves into spiritual oratory, they all tend towards an incantatory style of speech. Image and sound, together, cast a spell on the viewer.

The aftershocks of this hypnotic séance have been reverberating for fifty years already, and they will continue to do so as long as the cinema exists.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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