Saturday, March 23, 2013



It is hard to understand why THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, when it was first released, went unappreciated by the public in 1955.  Filmgoers were more sophisticated in the 1950s than they are today and would have been expected to recognize its qualities right away.  Its initial lacklustre performance can be blamed not on audiences this time, but on the critics who as they are often wont to do get together at a New York bar after a screening and decide to savage a film regardless of its merits.  Their ignorant cavilling prevented the audiences of the 1950s from seeing in great numbers one of the dozen or so most beautiful films ever made in any country.

Critical arrogance has not only destroyed careers and made films fail, it has conversely created reputations that are undeserved and promoted films that are nothing more than the leavings off the bottom of the garbage pail.  A critic can dismiss a masterwork like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and at the same time praise a lunatic farrago like DJANGO UNCHAINED, and lose all credibility in the bargain.  A movie critic's opinion has as much validity (and importance) as that of a hamburger flipper.

This extraordinary production was the only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton and it is those 1950s critics we have to thank for strangling in the cradle what could have been one of the most fascinating directorial careers in all cinema.  His heart broken by their condemnations, Laughton never directed another film.  But what he made here is a work of art that is compelling, entertaining and unique, a one of a kind movie the likes of which we will never, ever see again. 

It encompassed a whole way of looking at art and cinema, nurtured from the silent era, which is why it cannot be duplicated - certainly not by anyone in the entertainment business now.  It was born of the great art and craft of pure pictorialism; it was designed.  Lovingly evoking the delicate film techniques of the silent era and then improving on them Laughton created a motion picture that is, in a word, exquisite.  It is like a filmed dream.  It is a near-perfect evocation of childhood and innocence.  It depicts pure evil like you have never seen it depicted, thanks particularly to the astonishing performance of Robert Mitchum as the murderous preacher, and it depicts helpless innocence in the most touching manner, in the person of the two little children terrorized and pursued by a mad man.  Innocence is threatened, as it always is, by the forces of cruelty.  But in this film innocence will not be taken away.

In short, this Depression Era story tells of two children whose father, at his wit's end trying to procure food and clothing for his wife and two children, moved to despair by the economic hardships of the time, commits a robbery, and during the course of that robbery he unwittingly kills someone.  Sentenced to death, he spends his last night in jail with a strange preacher, a fellow prisoner, who is more anxious to know what happened to the stolen money than in saving the condemned man's soul.  The father goes to his death without revealing the whereabouts of the loot.  But soon after the preacher turns up at the town where the man's widow and children are, wooing the wife into marrying him.  The young boy suspects his new step-father's motives right from the start even while his mother is swept off her feet.  But the preacher vows that, come what may, he is going to find that stolen money.  But first, he must deal with the mother.

To tell you any more about the plot of this extraordinary film would be to ruin it for those who have not seen it.  This is one that requires attentive viewing with no distractions.  If you purchase the new blu-ray release , which we very much urge you to do, find a quiet evening away from distractions, lift the phone off the receiver and experience its odd, captivating power.

I have already alluded to the performance of Robert Mitchum as the deranged preacher.  He has done nothing finer in his career.  Laughton'c casting of him in the role was very shrewd.  Used to seeing him as a boozy, languid ne'er-do-well we are unprepared for his nervous, rat-like portrayal of a psychotic killer.  It is truly a sight to behold.  His dogged, tormenting evil is checked in several memorable scenes with Lillian Gish portraying a lonely woman who takes homeless, starved children into her household to save them from the ravages of the Depression. Miss Gish was a fine actress both in silent and sound films, a woman who could portray genuine inner strength. That is not the easiest of acting tasks to pull off believably.  But Gish does.

Laughton's direction of the children is notable for the fact that he never allows it to descend into sentimentality or bathos.  We feel for these children.  The young boy, played by Billy Chapin, was directed into a performance quite remarkable. 

With a lovely thing like this film the mise-en-scene is everything.  The art direction of Hilyard Brown is a masterpiece of scenic design.  Do not look for exact replicas of buildings and locations here.  The forests look real...but not quite.  The rooms in houses seem normal but there is something about them that is askew.  In keeping with the dream-like ambience of the picture Brown's sets are stylized, and brilliantly so.  They are integral part of the story.  It would not have the same effectiveness without those amazing sets.

Nor would it have had the same effectiveness without the striking camera work of Stanley Cortez.  This camera work would be impossible to over-praise.  It is said that we dream in black and white; therefore our nightmares are also in black and white.  Cortez understood this.

How can we have come this far without mentioning one of the movie's greatest strengths, it's music score?  It is excellent and unfailingly right for each scene.  Walter Schumann composed it.  It is his finest screen achievement. 

In the classic good-vs-evil story tradition good wins out in the end (as it will in real life, one day).  In NIGHT OF THE HUNTER good does win out over a malignant evil - but in a most unusual and satisfying way.  The triumph of goodness as depicted in this film is handled with sensitivity, counterbalancing the depths of evil it has hitherto depicted. [I hasten to add that the depiction of evil in this fine film in no way resembles the Junior High-level of gore and sadism found on today's tainted screens.]

This amazing, sad, heart-rending and uplifting movie is one everyone should see.  The cynics may scoff, but great beauty is not something a cynic can readily identify with.


Anonymous said...

I saw this film years ago. These still scenes are very familiar to me in a far away way. I'm looking forward to it.

Elizabeth said...

I'm a lover of classics but for some reason this movie escaped my notice until last year. I was completely surprised by it, and loved it. I remember the overall oppressive feeling, the darkness, and the wonderful acting. After this review of yours, I'm going to check it out of my library again! Thanks for that.

Tancred said...

That’s why Antonio Gramsci was a theater critic. There are many times when critical praise and popular appeal separate. Oftentimes, I find myself on the side of popular opinion.

It’s also comical how so many of the critics claim to be advocates for the common man, and yet hold him in such contempt.

Anonymous said...

Yes Aged Parent made this point, critics being able to make or break. True that 'journalists, editors can make or break politicians and on and on. Good thing they're not yet able to tell a conclave who they reeeallly need to raise to the Chair of Peter .

Aged parent said...

I should have added in my review that film critics were more highly respected back in the day, when serious people like Dilys Powell, Otis Ferguson, James Agee (who, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), Graham Greene were writing film criticism. Audiences at the time tended to accept their judgments which were, on the whole, sound. It was only in the mid-1960s that film critics started to go off the rails. Critics became more aware of their powers of persuasion which bred a certain arrogance. They would quite literally meet at a New York bar after screenings and decide to make or break a film or play or book or musical composition.

When all that began in the "swinging 60s" their credibility started to go down the toilet and today, when they can with a straight face praise rubbish like "Avatar", for example, no serious admirer of films can possibly take them seriously anymore.

Still Passing Through said...

I never heard of this movie but wow what story.

Only black and white films are ever allowed in my house. Got a small library of DVDs built up. I remember even as a child being acutely aware of "entertainment" taking a header into the trashcan. Money worshipping purveyors of filth. You know who they are.

InTerramDiligereEstPati said...

Critics can be just as bad with books too- lauding depraved, nihilistic darkness while dismissing or mocking the beautiful and the innocent. A people is greatly influenced by their entertainment, and entertainment must be purified as one of many steps to gaining this culture for Christ.

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