A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Is there another great film so inconsistent in tone and technique? For it is a great film for the most part -- certainly every part that features Robert Mitchum in one of the defining roles of his career. And the central section that deals with the river journey of the two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce), has a mythic resonance, enhanced by Lillian Gish's marvelously naive retelling of the stories of Moses in the bulrushes and the flight of the Holy Family from Herod's massacre of the innocents. Director Laughton, cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and art director Hilyard M. Brown give us memorable images like that of the drowned Shelley Winters, hair floating like the underwater weeds, or the one of Mitchum on horseback silhouetted in the distance against the night sky as the terrified children cower in a barn. I particularly love one heart-stopping moment: Lillian Gish has been sitting on her screened porch, shotgun on her lap, protecting the children while Mitchum waits outside. Gish and Mitchum have both been singing the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in an ironically peaceful duet. Then a child brings a candle to the porch and its light is reflected on the screen for a moment, hiding Mitchum from Gish's view. She quickly blows out the candle, but by the time she does, he has disappeared. If Laughton had been able to sustain this sort of tension throughout the film, it would be easier to call The Night of the Hunter a masterpiece. But some of his work is undone by the intrusive score by Walter Schumann. And Laughton, in his only film as director, isn't able to bring off what should be the film's climax: the capture, trial, and threatened lynching of Mitchum's character. As staged and edited, it proves anticlimactic. Nor does the Christmasy happy ending succeed in avoiding sentimentality. Some of the film's flaws no doubt result from the screenplay by James Agee, much revised by Laughton, which occasionally works too hard at being "poetic." But it's criminal that the poor initial reception of the film discouraged Laughton from trying his hand as director again.