BFI Classics: Night Of The Hunter

Author: Simon Callow

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a unique film. It was actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort that in this reviewer’s mind equals that of Hitchcock as a thriller. Yet on its release it was poorly received and suffered at the hands of the critics and poor marketing. It draws its influences from German Expressionism with sharp angles and shadows and the American Gothic from such sources as the paintings of Norman Rockwell or such writers as Walt Whitman and Tennessee Williams. But this is a fairy-tale like thriller with imagery that will haunt the imagination for years. I first viewed it on a late night showing on TV as a teenager and many of its images haunted my imagination like a haunting fairy-tale should; not least of all the murdered body of Shelley Winters in the river, her golden hair flowing in the river’s current like the weed grass drifting next to her. At the films core are two children trying to escape the crazy serial killer preacher played with Gothic relish by Robert Mitchum.

This addition to the BFI Classics series is written by lovey actor Simon Callow who has written the book with a full understanding of its textuality and with knowledge of its subject. He begins the book by comparing the finished film with the novel it was based off by Davis Grubb and how close the film is to the novel. Callow goes into great depth into the production of the film before going into the poor critical reception the film received on its release and why it took some twenty years to get the recognition that it fully deserves; it is interesting to note that the poor publicity and marketing of the film particularly by the studio (United Artists) contributed to the films failure (United Against Artists as producer Paul Gregory accused the studio) and how this shattered Laughton’s ability as a director and the reputation this would have on the cast and crew of the film; although Mitchum would later go on to play the sinister psychotic Max Cady in Cape Fear (not mentioned by Callow). It is the unreality of the film that Callow rightly recognizes as being a part of the films artistic success. The Expressionist triangular interior of the attic bedroom where the murder of Winters takes place (beautifully shot by cameraman Stanley Cortez) or the silver image of a moon and starlit night as the children float down the river to escape their bogeyman in the shape of Mitchum’s murderous preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his hands.

It is not until 60 pages into the book that Callow reflects on what to me is at the core of the film, that of the psychology and damage this episode will have on the children at the centre of the film. It has largely gone unrecognised (even in this book) how Laughton managed to draw some wonderful performances by the children, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. Callow ends his study of The Night of the Hunter with a chapter entitled ‘Coda’ in which he gives his own critical judgement on the film and clearly throughout the book Callow shows us a side to himself otherwise often gone unnoticed about a film that grows with age and repeated viewings.

Chris Hick

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