For the eighth feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema, we present The Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort. Considered a commercial and critical flop upon initial release, it has since risen from cult staple to full-blown classic. And rightfully so: its intriguing mixture of Southern Gothic dread mixed with bold German Expressionism makes it a near anomaly of the era, so it makes sense that it took everyone a few decades to catch up to its brilliance. Beyond the sheer technical and storytelling perfection, there’s a bravura, career-defining performance from Robert Mitchum as the ghoulish villain pulsating at the center (there’s a reason why his infamous knuckle tattoos been referenced by everyone from Spike Lee to The Simpsons.)
To get you prepped, we reached out to a few directors, a noted Hunter film scholar, and a staff member of Nitehawk Cinema to offer up their feelings on this legendary singular work.
—Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
JIM JARMUSCH – Director (Only Lovers Left Alive)
Charles Laughton's iconic masterpiece features Robert Mitchum's scariest performance (or at least as scary as Cape Fear) and one of the most unforgettable underwater shots in cinema history—that of the dead Shelley Winters, her hair gently flowing like seaweed. Photographed by the great Stanley Cortez.
JEFFREY COUCHMAN – Author (“The Night of the Hunter”: A Biography of a Film)
I was ten years old when I first saw The Night of the Hunter on TV, on The Late Show. At that time, it was all about the boy: John Harper, just my age, the only one in his whole town who knows that Preacher Harry Powell is a fraud and a threat. The boy’s hopeless isolation was more terrifying in its everyday reality than any late show Dracula, Mummy, or Wolf Man.
I was in college when I first saw The Night of the Hunter on the big screen. As part of the Southern Illinois Film Society, I insisted that we rent Charles Laughton’s film, even though my colleague Keith Vyse said nobody would show up. We rented it, and nobody showed up. This was before The Night of the Hunter’s entry into the National Film Registry and Bob Gitt’s loving, impeccable restoration. At that time, seeing the film enlarged in a darkened theater, it was all about the imagery: Preacher’s monstrous shadow on a bedroom wall or an underwater picture of serene and grisly death.
Years later, while writing a book about the film, I watched it again (and again) on both TV and the big screen. With each viewing I would see or hear something new, and so it was not about any one thing. The Night of the Hunter was Laughton's debut feature, and after it failed at the box office, he never directed another one. But through his only film, he tells a simple story with elegant economy while creating complex patterns of image and sound.
Based on Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, the film adheres to the author’s Depression-era story, characters, and dialogue. Grubb even receives first position in the credits, ahead of screenwriter James Agee, who felt the order of names was just. The realism of Grubb’s novel is matched in pastoral scenes of soft, supple grays. His lyricism is cinematically captured in a sequence such as the children’s stylized journey down the Ohio River. The film, however, diverges stylistically from the novel when it evokes the chilling geometry of German expressionism. In astonishing scenes sculpted in shadow and light, The Night of the Hunter belongs to Laughton’s cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. (In his first-draft script, Agee envisioned expressionistic devices that were never used in the film, such as a vibrating camera and “the groaning chordlike sound” of a steamboat whistle to convey Preacher’s murderous intention. That long-lost first draft will be published by the University of Tennessee Press in the next year or so.)
The pictorial dichotomy of the film is matched by a contrast in the acting of Robert Mitchum (Preacher) and Lillian Gish (Miz Cooper). Preacher delights in his own theatricality. Look at the way he tells the story of Good and Evil, using tattoos of love and hate on his fingers. Mitchum himself has the time of his life seeing how far he can exaggerate his character and still make him believable. He gives a broad, yet artfully controlled, performance that is different from anything else in his career. Gish, on the other hand, gives a restrained performance that is in keeping with the calm, bucolic sphere in which her character moves. The acting styles become a kind of code: Mitchum’s affected manner signals Preacher’s deceitful nature; Gish’s straightforward approach conveys Miz Cooper’s purity.
Perhaps Laughton’s greatest achievement in The Night of the Hunter is synthesizing the diverse elements of his film. Visual patterns of thematic significance hold the work together. Silhouettes in a burlesque house, for example, are echoed in a revival tent to emphasize the connection between sex and religion, a mingling at the perverse core of the tale. Laughton also turned to his composer, Walter Schumann, to help unify the film. Schumann’s exquisite score weaves a symphony of motifs, centered on two ethereal lullabies.
And so we return to the child’s perspective. In its evocation of a child’s fears, longings, and courage, Laughton’s film strikes a primal chord. Once heard, once felt, the strange and disturbing reverberations of The Night of the Hunter can never be forgotten.
ANDY BARATTA– Projectionist, Nitehawk Cinema
The Night of the Hunter is a film of huge symbols, the blackest of nightmares, featuring an inked bogeyman cloaked in pure intent with no regard for childhood innocence. Robert Mitchum plays the man in your closet, underneath your bed, who cannot be slayed until you first lose part of your imagination. He’s the specter of religion, the worst kind of villain: he who manipulates through the threat of a higher power. Matricide is overcome by atheism.
The most vivid fears and fantasies of my childhood are present in The Night of the Hunter. I always wanted to be alone, play by my own rules, and be Huck Finn, Peter Pan, and Robinson Crusoe. When things turned to terror, when I created monsters I couldn’t see, I retuned to the mundane. But the children in the film get this freedom by means of tragedy and must remain clandestine for their own survival, unable to turn the bayou back into the yard.
The film is a Gothic anomaly. Amazingly dense, stark and impeccably executed which only underscores the disappointment that Charles Laughton never directed another film. Most artists strive to create “that one perfect thing,” but for an audience, once will never be enough.
ANDREW DOMINIK–Director (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
German Expressionism meets Southern Gothic? Adult perversion through the eyes of a child? Lillian Gish talking directly to camera? Robert Mitchum overacting???
Critics hated it, the audience stayed away in droves, Laughton never directed again. Is it a masterpiece or a cautionary tale? The cost of following a singular vision in Hollywood is high, but all these years later, The Night of the Hunter exists. And it’s the other great directorial debut—like the club-footed, little sister of Citizen Kane.
The film describes the contest between a boy and his wicked, wicked stepfather. Poor little John: crushed by the weight of a promise never to tell "where the money’s hid." Money, so the Freudians tell us, is a phallic symbol—but even the resolution of this Oedipal drama is a bitter replay of the trauma that unleashed it. Never has a Grimm’s fairytale been so grim.
The Night of the Hunter is a film of strange sublime moments, collisions of innocence and experience. Who can forget Lilian Gish joining Robert Mitchum in hymn as he waits outside her own front gate to murder her? Who can forget the studio-bound boat ride past all the river creatures as Pearl sings about her "pretty fly." Or Shelly Winters, gorgeous in her watery grave, with her throat cut "like she has two mouths." Or the dreamlike enactment of her murder—like a piece of modern dance in a Kabuki set-greeting death, her face shining with joy. Or the battle of right hand/left hand—for my money, the greatest soliloquy in all of cinema history… "now watch and I’ll show you the story of life."
I was going to say that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but they never made them like this.
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. with funding provided by Robert Sturm and The Film Foundation.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Park Circus Limited.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.