Blog Directory CineVerse: Leaning on the everlasting artistry of "Night of the Hunter"

Leaning on the everlasting artistry of "Night of the Hunter"

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Largely ignored in its own time and underappreciated for decades, Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" is today regarded as one of the great works of cinema – a film that doesn't fit neatly into one particular category, although horror/thriller is often the box it checks among fans and scholars alike. Last evening, CineVerse journeyed up and down the river with John and Pearl and took a closer look at all of the elements that make this movie so memorable, particularly Robert Mitchum's performance as the evil preacher Powell. Here are our conclusions:

What stands out as impressive, unexpected, or revelatory about Night of the Hunter?

  • It blends a variety of cinematic styles and aesthetics. “Deeply embedded into The Night of the Hunter's DNA, the viewer finds: German expressionist director Robert Wiene's hypnotically designed 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's graphic, bucolic sets; the Biblical Southern Gothic epic as perfected by Griffith; the family film; the supernatural mystery; noir; melodrama; and serial killer pop art of the '50s,” wrote blogger Matt Mazur.
    • The influence of German expressionism in particular is quite prevalent, as evidenced by the scene of Willa being killed in the bedroom (with stylistic shadows making the room appear like a chapel); the exaggerated shadows Powell casts on walls; the stark silhouette of Powell on horseback; and the hauntingly beautiful underwater body of Willa, appearing to move in slow motion.
  • The tale plays as a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale, and, although Cooper’s character is our voiceover narrator, the primary point of view is through the eyes of the two children; many shots and scenes appear simplistic, exaggerated or distorted because we are meant to see the story through less sophisticated eyes.
    • "It's really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale we were telling," director Charles Laughton said in an interview. "We tried to surround the children with creatures they might have observed, and that might have seemed part of a dream. It was, in a way, a dream for them."
    • Consider that the sets often look artificial, dreamlike, and unrealistic; besides saving the filmmakers money, the advantage of this is that it untethers this world from any particular time or place – giving the movie more of a timeless feel and look.
  • The character of Powell, as expertly personified by Robert Mitchum, stands as one of the most frightening and disturbing in history of cinema. This could be true, despite the fact that he often appears intentionally as cartoonishly monstrous and buffoonish – in keeping with the fact that we are viewing this film through the eyes of child protagonists, who perceive him as a literal monster who grunts, growls and shrieks.
  • Think about how terrifying this villain and the film itself would’ve been to 1950s audiences – especially in its implicit and explicit violence directed at children.
  • The river journey sequence is particularly memorable for its brilliance: the imagery is dreamlike and nightmarish, but also soothing. The animals in the foreground loom large and appear imposing but also seem to be watching them indifferently, suggesting perhaps that nature is a neutral observer in their struggle. Notice, too, how the children on the run and on the water travel from left to right, while Cooper disrupts that pattern by walking from right to left – suggesting that you have to face your fears and break from old habits.
  • Powell’s violent attitude toward female sexuality would’ve likely been controversial in the mid-1950s.

Themes imbued into this film include

  • The timeless struggle between good and evil, love and hate, innocence and corruption, children versus adults, paternal authoritarianism versus maternal compassion and forgiveness; Powell and Cooper stand on opposite sides of this spectrum and battle for the lives and souls of the two children.
  • The innate innocence of children
  • The dangers of overzealous religious fundamentalism and old-time religion run amok
  • “A child-like vision of the confusing and contradictory nature of sex and the trap inherent in denying it or burying it under false religiosity,” according to Rob Nixon and Jeff Stafford of Turner Classic Movies. Consider how Willa is easily manipulated by the preacher’s twisted sexual morality.
  • Redemption, specifically how Ruby is redeemed by the end of the film from an endangered sheep to a loyal member of the flock.

Films that remind us of Night of the Hunter

  • German Expressionism classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and The Last Laugh
  • The silent film works of director D.W. Griffith, who often cast Lillian Gish in his pictures
  • Cape Fear
  • M
  • Whistle Down the Wind
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Elmer Gantry
  • Do the Right Thing 
  • No Country for Old Men

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