Charles Laughton is perhaps better known for being a strong character actor than a prolific director, yet his lone directorial effort shows an eye for beautiful visuals, fleshed out characterisation and heady mix of genres and styles. Often lumped in with far more generic film noir fair, 1955’s Night of the Hunter is far more than a simple gangster noir or Raymond Chandler adaptation. In fact it’s so far from the genre in terms of visuals, it’s quite surprising that the generalisation is allowed to go unchallenged.
The narrative however is perfect noir territory so for the moment it can stand. We follow two children, John and Pearl as they hide money their father stole from a strange man known as Preacher. Having shared a cell with the children’s father, he wriggles his way into their family before embarking on a hunt for the money in an exciting mix of death, betrayal and religion. This is of course an over simplified summing up but the film boasts so many textures and nuances, it’s perfect for dissertation material of all sorts.
Robert Mitchum excels as the creepy, religious obsessive that seems to be the blueprint for so many killers of films made after. Famous for having Love and Hate tattooed on each hand, Preacher has created his own religion to justify his lifestyle of hedonism and evil actions. His constant referring to the Good Lord and his singing of hymns, which announces his presence in many of the scenes, is terrifying yet utterly disarming asking the viewer to be duped into liking him in the same way the characters have been.
Night of the Hunter is also an intelligent and successful look into the death of childhood and approach into adulthood. Far more subtle than the modern day equivalents such as Adulthood, it mixes Art HouseMise-en-scène with fantasy scenarios that wouldn’t seem to out of place in a Disney film. As Pearl and John escape down river on a boat, the film switches from Lotte Reiniger style silhouettes of Preacher riding a horse to a pan out to show the starry sky with close ups of a singing toad and dew covered spiders webs. This constant switching between these two worlds sets it miles ahead of its apparent noir peers and also from most American films of the same era too. This desire to experiment seems far more European than Hollywood but in applying these ideas to an explicitly deep south, To Kill a Mockingbirdterritory makes it profound and sadly unique.
Another key player in the films success is Lillian Gish, who seems like a good version of the Preacher. Her beliefs seem uncomfortably close to Preacher’s with one particular scene of them both singing the same hymn as she guards the children with a gun being particularly poignant. Her character takes the children under her wing after they’ve escaped and only seems like a minor player in the narrative but it is she who opens the film with the telling of a bedtime story, not unlike, It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the end justice prevails, yet the children have lost both their parents in the process and are left with Gish’s character looking after them. However, the pocket watch that John had wanted since the beginning of the film, is given to him as a Christmas present, solidifying his journey into manhood and at the same time being brutally honest about how adulthood means the inevitable loss of one’s parents.
Sadly the only version of the film available in region 2 is the MGM official version, which has a good transfer but has no extras to match the quality of the film other than an original trailer. For those lucky enough to be able to play region 1 releases though (North American DVDs) Criterion have an excellent release that is not just on of their best releases to date, but is one of the best DVD packages available of any film with it containing a monumental amount of extras.
Night of the Hunter is a filmic experience like no other. Laughton never directed another film after this and this makes the brilliance of it seem depressingly finite. Ahead of pretty much every peer it had, it still has the power to shock with Mitchum’s calling of “Chill…dren?” still sending shivers down one’s spine. It’s not often this reviewer dares to break the fourth wall and speak directly these days but there’s no doubt that this is most definitely the best film this reviewer has ever seen.