NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish; dir: Charles Laughton
I dont think Night of the Hunter is well served by its legendary status, which sees it consigned to Mark Twains 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; its incredibly alive. The tone is set from Mitchums 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 Mitchums hands those famous hands! no matter how much his cast darkens over the course of the film.
Easily Mitchums 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 Laughtons 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 thats pure jazz, daddy-o! high on its own motorik.
Its now clear that it is this film, rather than J.Lee Thompsons 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 Mitchums flailing about in the river, etc etc its a sneaky bluff by the master of pulp revivalism.
Even more so than Welles, this being Laughtons sole completed work as director, theres 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 films many strands is the sense of play which was clearly an overriding factor probably subconsciously in Laughtons helming of this unique project. Theres a savagery to these kids reality thats underscored by the contrast of their innocent fun when left to their own devices. Simultaneously, play is strongly evident in the filmmakers gleeful joy in the discovery of cinema and all its potential the iris shot, high overhead angles, etc. Its like watching Citizen Kane for the first time.
Yet before its 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 Mitchums deranged pseudo-preacher is offscreen, the contrast between good and evil is clearest. The dreamlike quality of the childrens reverie seen here hadnt really been able to breathe earlier when Mitchums 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