The Night of the Hunter is a perennial source of fascination for cinéastes, both as a singular oddity in Hollywood history but also as a masterpiece in the truest sense: not only is it the best of what it is, it’s the only.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”The Gospel of Matthew
It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this one… impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?
Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.
The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).
The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.
This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.
In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.
In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.