A few days ago, kestrell
decided that she was finally up for watching The Night of the Hunter (1955)
, so we did so. I am happy to report that she liked it about as much as I do. In fact, I like it better on a second viewing than I did on the first. So, though I wrote about it then
, I find I have more to say now.
It’s probably Robert Mitchum’s greatest performance, and it was certainly Charles Laughton’s greatest directorial job – okay, okay, it was his ONLY directorial job, but it would’ve been an extreme high point for even a lifelong directorial career. For all that, when released it was a commercial and critical failure. Why? One answer is that the studio failed to give it much marketing push. But that’s just one symptom of what I think is the underlying problem: the film has no interest in sticking to a genre formula. You could call it a Crime Drama – but there is very little of either crime or punishment actually shown. You could call it Horror – but there is no blood and no cat-scares. You could call it Americana – if you could overlook all the tributes to German Expressionism. So much of the emotional tone is carried by characters singing that you could call it a Musical, except that it clearly isn’t THAT. Many reviewers use the phrase Fairy Tale, which isn’t 100% wrong, though certainly not how it was marketed. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to name one single genre that this movie is, I’d say Children’s Movie…
Yes, Children’s Movie. Easily 90% of the movie is through the viewpoint of one child or another. The film’s thematic concerns are largely about how marginalized people cope with the existence of powerful oppressors – with the ultimate examples being children and adults. Its message, both shown and told, is that though they are oppressed, children yet have power that adults lack. Of course, that’s not a message that most parents are really gonna be happy with…
I suppose you could make a good argument that the genre here is Suspense; the film certainly contains a great deal of that quality. But there is very little Mystery in it. You know almost before he appears on-screen that Robert Mitchum is a serial killer. There is a hidden MacGuffin, but it’s only hidden for about half an hour, and revealed almost offhandedly. On first viewing, I thought that an odd and clumsy directorial choice, but since then I’ve changed my mind. I think Laughton hides MacGuffin, not to create mystery, but to properly PACE his suspense. If we knew the location of the MacGuffin too early, we would worry about it being accidentally uncovered during scenes in which Laughton wants us concentrating on other matters.
This is far from the only such example. Laughton’s storytelling is extremely straightforward on the surface, but deceptively complex beneath. The basic point of every scene and character would be immediately clear to a typical eight-year-old*. But re-watching, with an eye towards the storytelling mechanics, you can see how almost every scene in the first half is doing at least double duty and often more; helping reinforce or foreshadow plot traits and characteristics that will be important later in the film.
(* The one exception is, tellingly, a scene where the young boy viewpoint character has just been woken from a sound sleep in unknown and threatening circumstances.)
The movie also has a fascinating relationship with religion. On the one hand, Robert Mitchum is a preacher who is also a serial killer. Late in the film, the “good Christian people” whom he has preached to become a vicious mob, howling for his blood – arguably, embracing religion the same way that he always has. So you might think this movie was opposed to religion. But then, you have Lillian Gish’s character, an ACTUAL good Christian: an old woman who takes in and cares for unfortunate orphans, and reads Bible stories to them. She would be treacly – if she wasn’t also a terrifying crone! And yet, beneath her hardened exterior, she has a true understanding of Charity. At one point, she sees a pair of young lovers canoodling in the marketplace. (Pause while I look up the quote…) “She'll be losing her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not, I'll be saddled with the consequences.” On the one hand, she clearly disapproves, but on the other, she IS willing to be “saddled with the consequences”. Indeed, she has already proven so: at least one of her “wards” has a loving mother who works near that marketplace – by implication, a single mother who is unable to care for her own child by herself. A little later in the film, Gish surprises us again with her reaction(s) to one of her girls having gotten in trouble (another of those scenes where the eight-year-olds are probably going to miss some of the complexities).
Despite the top level of the film being (or at least seeming) completely straightforward, it’s full of surprises. Not surprises of plot, but of image, or moments of character. Things I had never seen before, nor even realized that I might see. I’m very glad I did, though. Very Highly Recommended.