I don't know how to start this review. I have a difficult time writing about films I consider part of that short list of the greatest ever made. How do I write about a film that's been one of my 50 favorites for more than a decade without sounding like a whirling dervish of gushing hyperbole? If I say this is one of the greatest films ever made, am I just asking for people to say, "No, it's not," especially in this era of snap Internet judgment in which smug contrarians take a superficial glance at a canonical work and shrug "Meh" loudly into cyberspace with ignorant self-satisfaction? Probably, but I'll just have to take that chance. "Meh" is not in my repertoire. Death to "meh." If "meh" is your default setting, you should probably find some new interests. I suggest skydiving without a parachute.
The Night of the Hunter features a once-in-a-lifetime collection of incredible talents, and not just because it was Charles Laughton's only film as director. Laughton was an accomplished movie actor and theater actor/director, and his filmography includes some fantastic work in James Whale's The Old Dark House, Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls, Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, and Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution. The cast includes Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The film's soundtrack, mostly by Walter Schumann, is full of beautiful and beautifully creepy songs, including "Dream, Little One, Dream," "Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly," and the spiritual "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a genius with light and shadow, also shot Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, and portions (uncredited) of Polanski's Chinatown. He later said that Laughton and Welles were the only directors he worked with who truly understood light. The screenplay, based on a novel by Davis Grubb (whose short story "Return of Verge Likens" became one of the best episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) was written by novelist/poet/essayist/film critic/screenwriter James Agee, one of the most talented and versatile writers of the first half of the twentieth century.
Mitchum, though one of my favorite actors, did Agee a disservice for years by claiming in his autobiography that Agee's script was a mess and that Laughton had to rewrite most of it. For some reason, this was accepted as gospel until the discovery of Agee's first draft in 2004 proved that his screenplay, though eventually whittled down, included, shot-for-shot, every scene that made it into the final cut. Mitchum also claimed he directed some of the film when Laughton encountered difficulties working with the children, though that has been strongly disputed by almost everyone else involved in the film. Despite his faulty memory and/or propensity for bullshit, Mitchum later named Laughton his best director and Night of the Hunter his best film.
Enough with the credits. All this talent wouldn't mean anything if the film was a mess. It isn't. I have a real problem with films that include shots that serve no other purpose than moving the plot along or presenting information or exposition, and a real admiration for films that make every shot visually interesting. In The Night of the Hunter, every shot pulses with visual invention. Every shot is expressive, beautiful, memorable. Just as impressive is the fact that none of these shots overwhelm the actors, story, or tone. They aren't there to show off or dazzle. Instead, Cortez works with light and shadow to make tangible the intangible emotional and intellectual geography of the characters and their place within the story and its setting.
Laughton does a more than impressive job uniting all these strong, individual talents. He manages to create a cohesive, unified entity out of some strange ingredients. The film combines realism and exaggerated fantasy, German expressionism and American Southern gothic, elements of theater and then-contemporary and silent cinema, dark horror and light observational humor, and a depiction of both the best and worst aspects of human behavior without heavy-handed sermonizing about either. The film is direct, frank, and nonjudgmental about sexuality, particularly female sexuality, which is unusual for a Hollywood studio film from the 1950s, and forward-thinking in its condemnation of revenge, unfortunately considered a virtue by most Hollywood films since and a bedrock of the mainstream American value system, particularly in the rabble-rousing, telephone-game angry-white-man Facebook forward and 24-hour news culture we're presently drowning in.
If you haven't seen the movie yet, here's a brief synopsis. A man (Peter Graves) rushes home to his children with the law after him. He's stolen $10,000 and committed murder during the robbery. He makes his son John (Billy Chapin) promise him two things: 1) Keep a close watch over his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and 2) Never tell anyone where he hid the money. Graves is soon captured, where his cellmate is Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-styled preacher in jail for car theft who has been working his way across the country by ingratiating himself with a series of widows who he then murders and robs. Mitchum is truly scary in the part, particularly because he seems to honestly believe in his warped version of Christianity, in which the murder of widows is a gift from God that provides Powell's salary. Powell hears Graves mention the hidden money in his sleep, so after he gets out of jail and after Graves is sentenced to death and executed, he tracks down the family and worms his way into the heart of Willa (Shelley Winters), the grieving widow. John is a smart kid and doesn't trust Powell, and when things get really dark, he takes his sister and the money and goes on the run. The children are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), caregiver to several orphans and abandoned children, and Powell goes on the hunt for the children and the money.
A plot description is woefully inadequate, however. This is a film of light, shadow, movement, precise verbal and physical language and facial expressions, visual invention, atmosphere, and mood. It's an experience. An experience that unfortunately wasn't appreciated in its own time. The film was a critical and commercial failure upon initial release, for reasons I can't begin to understand. Laughton never directed another film, though he would live for another seven years. Unfortunately, Laughton and Agee didn't live to see the film become an established classic and a massive influence on a varied group of filmmakers, but many of the other people involved in The Night of the Hunter did. If you haven't seen it yet, make it a priority.