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The Greatest One-Off in Movie History

The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s only film, influenced Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers.

“When I first went to the movies, audiences sat in their seats straight. Now they slump down with their heads back, or eat candy and popcorn,” said esteemed actor Charles Laughton when it was announced that he would be directing his first feature film. “I want them to sit up straight again.” But when The Night of the Hunter opened in 1955, critics remained slumped in their seats while moviegoers barely filled the seats at all. The film came and went, and its failure broke Laughton’s heart. He would never direct another film.

Fast-forward to this week’s Criterion canonization of Laughton’s film. In the years since his death in 1962, Night of the Hunter has grown larger in the cultural memory, first as a cult movie, then as a bona fide classic. It has earned an unusual place in cinema lore, perhaps the greatest one-off in movie history, and become one of the most quoted American films—traces of its DNA can be found in the films of Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, the Coen brothers, and Spike Lee. You can see what draws them to it: Equal parts Griffith and German Expressionism, Capra and Grimm, it is also thoroughly American, a collage of fragments from our collective dream life. The irony is that it took a British director to give us the most magical filmed portrait of the dread and dream of the American pastoral.

Laughton had been a popular actor in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but by the ‘50s his star had dimmed. A turn to directing for the stage soon led to his first opportunity to make a movie. Laughton had been entranced by Davis Grubb’s bestseller The Night of the Hunter, a gothic fairy tale set in rural West Virginia. To a foreigner, Grubb’s book must have been an eye-popping fantasia, an inflation of all that he thought he knew about this eccentric, unruly country. Laughton’s movie is steeped in Americana plucked from the source novel: hymns, homilies, revivals, superstitions, and sayings make up its tapestry of Depression Era life. The landscape is at once lush and pestilential, an idyllic America marred by the evil of men and mobs.

That evil is personified by a preacher: Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a homicidal villain whom David Thomson rightly called “one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema.” When we first meet Preacher (as he is referred to in the script), he is driving on a country road, fresh off a recent murder and talking to God. “Well, now, what’s it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many has it been?” he asks. An emblem of American piety and certitude, Preacher sees his path as ordained by the divine. “You say the word, Lord. I’m on my way.”

Into his life comes Ben Harper. An outlaw on the run from the police, Ben is arrested for robbery and murder—but not before he hides his loot and tells his children, 8-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 5-year-old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), not to reveal the hiding place to anyone, not even their mother (a touchingly vulnerable Shelley Winters). Ben ends up in the same cell as Preacher, who has been arrested for auto theft, and spills the secret while talking in his sleep that the $10,000 he stole is still out there. After Ben is executed, the Preacher is set free, and the hunt for the money—really, the children—begins.

Shot by the great Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter is a magic lantern of a movie. Cortez remarked that only two directors he worked with understood light, “that incredible thing that can’t be described”: Welles and Laughton. Refracted through the prism of a child’s nightmare, it is a movie of skewed perspectives and shadow play. Preacher’s entry into John and Pearl’s lives, one of the great first encounters in movies, is a baroque coup:

John’s nightmare will only get worse. As Preacher insinuates himself in the children’s hometown, only the boy intuits the evil within. Pauline Kael called it “one of the most frightening films ever made,” but its scares come not from Grand Guignol horrors or gotcha moments. There’s something deeply primal at work here: The subterranean charge coursing through the picture is our childhood terror of having no grown-up left to turn to. The fatherless John sees his mother meet and fall in love with the Preacher; the townspeople are no less captivated by the charismatic madman. In perhaps the movie’s most famous scene, the Preacher tells a parable that also gestures toward Laughton’s grand theme:

In memory, The Night of the Hunter stands out as a chase movie—which is strange because much of it actually stays put. But there’s a good reason for that trick of the mind. At the movie’s heart is a pursuit, as the children, abandoned by adults, escape from the Preacher and drift downriver on a skiff. Evoking biblical legend and American lore, the river sequence is one of the greatest in all of cinema:

At the end of that ride is refuge. Like Moses rescued from the riverbank, John and Pearl are found by an old lady, Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), a Mother Goose figure who becomes their guardian. (Further evidence of Laughton’s film sense: when she first brings the children home, Mrs. Cooper walks briskly across the screen from right to left, the camera tracking along with her—in emphatic opposition to the left-to-right movement of the chase.)

It is with the appearance of Gish that Laughton’s movie, already remarkable, deepens into a grander statement of formal and thematic purpose. Laughton considered Gish the lynchpin of the entire project. For Laughton, the way to get at truths was through the simplest forms: fairy tales, Bible stories, and, of course, the silent pictures. D.W. Griffith’s greatest star, Gish was for Laughton a living, breathing avatar of the elemental power of the movies.

But Gish embodies more than that. Shimmering with righteousness and good American sense, her pious Mrs. Cooper is the crucial counterweight to Mitchum’s Preacher. Her presence broadens the movie’s scope, helping it rise above a mere critique of American parochial fundamentalism to an encompassing portrait of humanity’s complexity. Just as LOVE and HATE both reside in the soul of man, so do faith and religion serve a corrosive purpose but an ennobling one as well. If Preacher (and, to a lesser extent, the sanctimonious townsfolk who can’t spot iniquity when it’s staring them in the face) represents blinkered zealotry and certainty, Mrs. Cooper redeems the purpose of faith, emblematizing Christian compassion and strength. Religion as double-edged sword reaches its expressive apogee in a climactic scene, with Preacher laying siege to Mrs. Cooper’s house, singing a gospel hymn—only to be joined in song by the old lady, singing her own words of devotion:

Laughton’s refusal to be reductive can be easily missed because of his movie’s apparent simplicity. But though it harks back to simpler forms of expression, The Night of the Hunter complicates all that it touches—Laughton keeps undercutting the movie it could have become. Its Capra-esque platitudes by themselves can be mawkish; sitting next to images of stark surrealism, they bloom into moving affirmations of American innocence amid American corruption.

Preacher himself embodies Laughton’s efforts to tell something richer and stranger. Flamboyantly threatening though he is, he actually falls short of demonic. From some angles, Preacher can appear a force of nature, a close kin of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. But Laughton keeps puncturing his menace. He instructed Mitchum to inject some buffoonishness into the role, and Mitchum garnishes his devilish turn with cartoonish curlicues—an odd yip here, a clumsy tumble there. Gish reportedly disagreed with Laughton’s deflation of Preacher—and she may have had a point—but Laughton was just as interested in showing a human fraud as he was in a superhuman villain.

The result is, finally, something of an oddity—sui generis, and thoroughly ours. The movie’s highlights echo through the work of our best artists. That river trip, with its wide-eyed view of indifferent nature, seems to hold the key to Malick’s cinema; its impeccably composed mayhem appears in the Coens’ movies (a corpse at the bottom of the river in The Man Who Wasn’t There will look mighty familiar to Hunter fans); Scorsese’s remake of Mitchum’s own Cape Fear (1962) seems to take as much from the original as it does from Hunter. Perhaps its most prominent quotation comes from another movie that recognized how deeply enmeshed good and evil are in the American soul:

Laughton never lived to see his movie become the touchstone that it is. His only other shot at directing was an aborted film version of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. The great James Agee, who wrote the script, died two months before the movie’s 1955 premiere, his last work for the screen as indelible a vision of the world of children as his A Death in the Family. As unshakeable as last night’s dream,their movie still speaks to us across the decades: a primeval spook story, a tribute to childhood, and a plaintive American prayer against the devil inside that we will never quite exorcise.

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