When I was researching the DVD aspect ratio of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) on DVDBeaver.com, I was saddened to discover that my worst fear was confirmed: Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who also lensed The Magnificent Ambersons and The Naked Kiss) had originally shot the film widescreen. Yet, to my displeasure, the DVD transfer is full-screen, undercutting the film’s beautiful example of expressionism taken to its limits. I hope MGM puts out a new edition as soon as possible with the much-praised UCLA restoration (which I have yet to see) as its print source. While I was lamenting the unfortunate transfer MGM supplied the 2001 DVD release with, I also noticed something rather telling in the review. In each DVDBeaver review, there are links to books related to the film. For instance, if you look at the review of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you’ll find links to books on Kubrick. For the review of Night of the Hunter, DVDBeaver supplied a list of film noir book titles including Alain Silver’s appropriately titled Film Noir, which features Hunter’s antagonist Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) on the cover. Re-watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what classified it as noir (for my classical noir retrospective, click here).
Sure, I can see on the surface where one might brand the film a noir. The film owes its aesthetic to German Expressionism, is shot in black and white, deals with a murder, and even stars noir regular Robert Mitchum (Crossfire, Out of the Past, His Kind of Woman) as a murderous preacher. Yet, Night of the Hunter does not concern itself with two key noir themes: the film does not care to solicit our alignment with the antagonist and it favors unwavering religious piety over existential angst. While it looks like a noir, I would describe it as a film in the Southern Gothic tradition, a cautionary fairy tale about the dangers of false prophets. In fact, one could easily re-read the film’s expressionist qualities as owing more to the Southern Gothic aesthetic of the grotesque than noir. Moveover, it’s not as if this reading of the film is a stretch, as reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham as a metaphor for original sin would be. The film’s opening sequence hands us its preferred reading with notable clarity.
The film begins with a shot of the faces of children, superimposed over a twilight sky, over which Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) reads:
Now, you remember children how I told you….”Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves….A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree being forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
Following this shot, Laughton cuts to children finding a dead body during a game of hide and seek. The following shot begins with a car driving up a riverside road, an ominous musical score thunders over the cut. In the car, we find Rev. Harry Powell who gazes up to the sky and asks:
Well now, what’s it to be Lord? Another widow? How many’s it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. You say the word Lord. I’m on my way….Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that you mind the killings, your book is full of killings.
The sequence is so economically told, utilizing the music and juxtaposing cut between Cooper’s sermon and Powell’s prayer relays to us that Powell, despite his posturing as a man of the cloth, is indeed a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is what the rest of the film is about: how a town is easily seduced by Powell’s words while a widow’s children remain dubious.
Laughton’s fairy tale, in the traditional sense of the concept (not the Disney version!), begins when Ben Harper (Peter Graves) arrives home after a performing a double murder during a robbery gone awry. He hands off the stolen money to his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), before he is taken away by police and sentenced to death by hanging. On death row, Harper accidentally discloses information regarding the money to his cellmate, Powell. Shortly after Harper’s execution, Powell is released and he descends upon the Harper household, hoping to seduce his widow, Willa (Shelly Winters), and make off with the money. Later, when Powell discovers that his newlywed wife Willa has no idea what happened to the money and that she is growing suspicious of his motives, he murders her. In the aftermath, the children flee by boat down the river towards the sanctuary of Rachel Cooper’s farm.
The plot of the film is fairly simple, which suits the material perfectly. As the story (adapted from Davis Grubb’s novel by film critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Agee and Laughton) lacks unnecessary clutter, Laughton is able to focus on aesthetically underlining the fairy-tale aspect of the plot (I wonder how many times Tim Burton has watched this film?). Take, for instance, three of my favorite sequences in the film. The first occurs when Willa is told that it’s impossible to raise children alone. As the dialogue progresses, Laughton intercuts with foreboding images of a black train car, bellowing smoke, no doubt carrying the good Rev. Powell towards her doorstep. The cutting deliberately throws the sequence out of whack, placing the viewer in a state of suspense as we come to realize that this is not a world where free will seems to exist, as Willa has already become visually coupled with the demonic Powell before actually meeting him. The second moment occurs shortly after, when Powell arrives at the Harper household. John begins telling his sister the story of evil treasure hunters, just as the shadow of the Powell’s askew hat haunts the bedroom walls thanks to a perfectly placed gaslight. Powell stands in front of the window and, in his gravelly voice, begins to sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
The final sequence I’d like to mention visually echoes this. Once the children seek refuge with Cooper, Powell begins to stalk her front door in the moonlight. Powell and Cooper engage in a hymn-off; we can see Cooper’s shadow in the foreground of the dimly lit house and Powell’s profile outside her front window. After the singing concludes, one of the children comes in the room with a candle, temporarily making Powell invisible to those indoors. Cooper swiftly extinguishes the candle, only to find that Powell has gone and made his way into the house.
The scene perfectly sums up the entire message of the film. Here is a woman, played wonderfully by D.W. Griffith’s aging muse, whose humble piety is tested by the falcon-featured devil of Mitchum’s serial killer. It’s a chilling scene, from both standpoints of watching a suspenseful film and a film that critiques religious zealotry (notice the foregrounding of the blazing torches at the revival meetings). After all, the film leaves the easily led townsfolk as a maniacal lynch mob, depicted almost as horrifically as Rev. Powell. In fact, the only people Laughton depicts compassionately are Cooper and the children, who are swayed by the words of the Bible rather than the venom of a self-proclaimed reverend. Sounds less like a film noir and more similar to a short story by Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, does it not?
The legacy of The Night of the Hunter is kept alive by four characteristics: Cortez’s cinematography, Mitchum’s chilling performance as the reverend who has “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on his fingers, as the only film to be directed by acclaimed British actor Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty, Witness for the Prosecution), and as one of the screenplays written by film critic James Agee to make it to the big screen (the other notable one being The African Queen). Now, there has been much debate over who is “responsible” for the final product of the film. Laughton supposedly hated Agee’s script, which was rumored to have been near 300 pages. Yet, research by scholars Simon Callow and Jeffrey Couchman have redeemed Agee’s screenplay. Credit can no doubt be given to both, but Agee’s contribution pushed me to contemplate a path not taken: unlike the French, who had the critics and filmmakers of the New Wave movement, America never really encountered critics making the transition to filmmaking. Sure, Roger Ebert wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) came close to the becoming the American equivalent of François Truffaut, but our national legacy of criticism turned into cinematic practice has been short. Watching The Night of the Hunter, a perfect film, one of my favorite films, one cannot help but wonder what that legacy would have become if 45 year old Agee hadn’t passed away four months before the film’s release.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.