“Art”, but particularly the art of others, can be found nestled deep within the bone marrow of The Night of the Hunter. Academy Award winning actor Laughton immediately realized the cross-artistic potential of Davis Grubbs’ successful 1953 novel and snapped up the film rights before the novel was even released, with the intention of making his feature directorial debut on the project. The financial success of the book meant that a film version would need to be made in quick succession, to capitalize on the novel’s popularity, and so United Artists began production.
“United against the artists” was how Hunter producer Paul Gregory referred to the studio in expert Jeffrey Couchman’s biography of the film, which from inception reflected a cutting duality. Released in September 1955, the finished product would eventually become iconic precisely for its sophisticated, adroitly artistic depiction of good versus evil.
The Night of the Hunter‘s iconicity is largely due to its genre-defying dialectical properties that bring together the edgy with the earnest, a blending of styles ahead of its time. The raw, open-wound quality of Laughton’s film would have no doubt appealed to enthusiasts of films that went against the grain, both in their construction and in their spirit, films that transgressed and challenged typical Hollywood mores while simultaneously paying homage to them.
An Oscar winning actor in his own right, Laughton understood the advantage to having a star in the lead role, and so he brought in Hollywood royalty Robert Mitchum to play Harry “Preacher” Powell (“people who sell God must be sexy,” Laughton once remarked to Grubbs). Laurence Olivier, Joseph Cotten and, incredibly, Jack Lemmon were at various points considered to play “Preacher”, a Jesus-spouting, psychopathic serial killer of Depression-era widows, who might also actually be a demon sent straight from hell. Preacher, who has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles to illustrate the classic tale of “good” and “evil”, is a flamboyant petty criminal with an insane hatred of women.
This hatred lands him in a jail cell with cop-killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who, fortunately for the wicked, opportunistic Preacher, reveals while talking in his sleep that he has hidden a $10,000 booty somewhere in the vicinity of Cresap’s Landing, where his wife Willa (Laughton’s first choice for the part and former student Shelley Winters) and children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) were left behind destitute following his arrest. Willa, a character that actresses Ann Baxter, Betty Grable and Grace Kelly all wanted to tackle, toils in the local confectioner’s shop for the Spoons, the domineering busybody Icey and the compliant Walt (Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe), vacantly awaiting Ben’s execution. Winters, according to Couchman’s assessment, “achieves the delicate combination of sensuality, plainness, meekness and hysteria,” that was needed to most accurately portray the character’s quiet minutiae. The actress approaches the role with a minimalist flourish that clashes beautifully with Willa’s tempestuous highs later in the film when the fervor and fanaticism eventually lead to her climactic, deadly seduction by this reprehensible ‘man of God’.
Released from custody, Preacher makes his way to the river town to charm and fool both Willa and the zealous Christian townsfolk into thinking he is a “man of God” in order to find the money, which was hidden inside Pearl’s rag doll by Ben, prior to his arrest. Disgusted with Willa’s desire to make love, Preacher, in one of cinema history’s most chilling depictions of dysfunctional, pent-up sexual energy orgasmically unleashed since Marylee Hadley’s “dance of death” in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, murders his blushing bride with a gleaming pocket knife and hides her corpse by fastening it to her old Model T, which he submerges at the bottom of the river, in one of the film’s most haunting scenes.
The children are now at his mercy, and he continues to terrorize them about the money. Finally realizing Preacher’s murderous intentions, John and Pearl run to the very river their mother was just pulled out of and hop onto a rowboat, recalling the excitement and ominous, impending danger of the boat and water scenes of German director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The children, whose innocence was taken away long ago by the many traumas they faced, embark on a trip down the glittering black river as the golden moon and stars twinkle above their sleepy heads.
This trip down the river is indeed the very definition of a trip, an acid trip-tinged nightmare where the spectator becomes a part of this dark childhood fairytale sequence as glistening frogs croak along to Pearl’s lullaby and the exasperated, exhausted orphans drift away in a skiff from their stepfather and their past. They avoid their murderous stalker at every stop, begging for food and shelter from kind strangers up until their final destination, where they meet a tough, salt of the earth Christian lady who takes in children during “them hard, hard times”.
To provide a nostalgic yin to Mitchum’s blustery, fire and brimstone yang, Laughton, who had been intently studying the films of D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation , Broken Blossoms , Intolerance ) in preparation to direct his first feature, promptly cast Griffith staple Lillian Gish in the role of guardian angel Rachel Cooper after briefly considering Grubbs’ preferred choice of Ethel Barrymore (who Laughton found “rather Hudson than Ohio River Valley”) and Jane Darwell, a Best Supporting Actress winner for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) whose successful turn as “Ma Joad” from that film made her the go-to actress when a morally righteous, kind mother type was needed. In the end, Gish was chosen for the pivotal Rachel, a kind-hearted, resourceful woman who takes in orphans with nowhere to go, because of her ability to “appear to be the source of light” according to Couchman. The fit of star and role makes perfect sense as the character of Rachel Cooper could be described much like producer Gregory described Gish herself, as a “Dear Little Iron Butterfly”.
As the tormented Preacher finds his way down the river, he runs afoul of Miz Cooper’s own particular brand of righteousness: one that includes Jesus and the Bible, faith, perseverance and a shotgun. “I got something caught in my barn,” Miz Cooper alerts the State Police after Preacher skulks away to the structure after an unsuccessful attempt at kidnapping John and Pearl. The cops immediately take Preacher into custody and back to Cresap’s Landing to be appropriately punished for Willa’s murder and for his other heinous crimes.
During his trial, where a tortured John must testify against his stepfather, the townspeople, enraged, gather in furious, fervent mobs and rally in the streets outside of his cell for Preacher to hang. Screaming “Bluebeard!” at the fallen angel who is now more like a caged animal in his cell awaiting death, the mob descends on him, and Preacher is deftly hustled into a police car and rushed to a safer location, providing a jarring, anti-climactic transition to the film’s Christmastime coda set at Rachel’s farm, where the “good” children open their meager presents and “evil” (Preacher) escapes an onscreen punishment. At the end, though there is no such thing as innocence anymore, and viewers are asked to accept an outcome that they might not necessarily enjoy or even remotely agree with.
Author and film scholar Couchman, is featured on one of the extras included on Criterion’s immaculate new edition of the film, which is only one of many mind-blowing special features that make the new package appealing (Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, a two-and-a-half-hour ‘treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage’, is also a huge draw). An expert on Laughton’s film, Couchman says in his book that “The Night of the Hunter reverberates with the voices of other writers“ and it is evident that Laughton drew upon a myriad of influences and styles to create the only film he would direct in his lifetime.
If, as film critic Tom Gunning wrote, “melodrama employs an aesthetic of astonishment” than it could be said that Laughton’s film was similarly an amalgamation of “astonishing” influences. Deeply embedded into The Night of the Hunter‘s DNA, the viewer finds: German expressionist director Robert Wiene’s hypnotically designed 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s graphic, bucolic sets; the Biblical Southern Gothic epic as perfected by Griffith; the family film; the supernatural mystery; noir; melodrama; and serial killer pop art of the ’50s. Critics of the time pegged Laughton’s finished film as belonging to the “horror”, “suspense”, and “Jack the Ripper” movie traditions and the director himself described it as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale. A beautiful ballad, folk-tale, and real Americana”.
Part of the slippery allure of The Night of the Hunter is that it can be read in so many ways, possessing layer after layer of perfectly placed influences, the beautiful symmetry of which mark Laughton’s blistering 92-minute film as one of the classic, most essential, most influential American works of cinema and renders it my favorite American film of all time.