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NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

(1955)

Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish; dir: Charles Laughton

 

I don’t think Night of the Hunter is well served by its legendary status, which sees it consigned to Mark Twain’s definition of ‘classic’: something one reveres without ever experiencing. Because seen fresh, especially on the big screen, Night of the Hunter is a film that is kinetic; it’s incredibly alive. The tone is set from Mitchum’s opening appearance – all forward motion, rollicking along in his flivver, jauntily engaging ‘da Lawd’ with that droll cynical glee which instantly wins us over with its muscular, knowing naughtiness. From the outset we are putty in Mitchum’s hands – those famous hands! – no matter how much his cast darkens over the course of the film.

Easily Mitchum’s all time greatest performance, can this film be imaginable without him? Sure, the cinematography (by Stanley Cortez) is stunning – an endless succession of incredibly beautifully composed Expressionist tableaux – and Laughton’s ingenue direction is occasionally so loopy as to be inspired. But the heart, the engine is Mitchum – poppin’, percolatin’, riffin’ along on a hepcat performance that’s pure jazz, daddy-o! – high on its own motorik.

It’s now clear that it is this film, rather than J.Lee Thompson’s 1962 Cape Fear, that Martin Scorsese was paying homage to with his overloaded 1991 Cape Fear – the flowing fronds of Shelley Winters’ watery grave, the quasi-Frankenstein howl of Mitchum’s flailing about in the river, etc etc – it’s a sneaky bluff by the master of pulp revivalism.

Even more so than Welles, this being Laughton’s sole completed work as director, there’s an aura of ‘what might have been’ hanging over Night of the Hunter. This adds to its lustre but also its untouchable status.

What unites the film’s many strands is the sense of ‘play’ which was clearly an overriding factor – probably subconsciously – in Laughton’s helming of this unique project. There’s a savagery to these kids’ reality that’s underscored by the contrast of their innocent fun when left to their own devices. Simultaneously, ‘play’ is strongly evident in the filmmaker’s gleeful joy in the discovery of cinema and all its potential – the iris shot, high overhead angles, etc. It’s like watching Citizen Kane for the first time.

Yet before it’s over, Night of the Hunter has fallen apart completely, with its overextended sentimental ending exhausting our patience. But this is preceded by a third quarter, as the children drift down the river, that is so languid as to be narcotic. Was Laughton just sampling different approaches and pacings as he worked through the story? Certainly in this respiteful river interlude, when Mitchum’s deranged pseudo-preacher is offscreen, the contrast between good and evil is clearest. The dreamlike quality of the children’s reverie seen here hadn’t really been able to breathe earlier when Mitchum’s character was inhabiting the frame.

Undoubtedly unique, Night of the Hunter is a flawed gem that deserves revisiting, not to mention the normalisation that comes from taking it off the shelf of dusty ‘untouchable’ classicism.

- Roger Westcombe