Apart from being a little heavyhanded with the expressionist photography, the likes of which we haven’t quite seen on the List (at least not to this extent) since F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Robert Wiene back in the 1920s, Night of the Hunter is a really good and swift and suspenseful movie that very much fits the attention span of a modern audience. The movie’s also so laden with touches of cinema history that it almost feels like it was made to reward somebody who’d come this far on the List.
And the first bitta history it brings up is the aforementioned expressionism, which is basically a German thing, a silent film thing, and with the advent of sound in 1928 (first put on display in The Jazz Singer), which allowed for new vistas of nuance and opportunity—it would have suddenly seemed a little excessive to communicate someyone’s tyranny, for isntancg them some impossibly long angular shadow that looms over the hero.
In silent cinema, however, that kinda thing wasn’t excessive at all.
It isn’t overwhelming here, either, but it does feel like a bit of an affectation. Like the storyteller is too enamored fo the tools at his disposal and wants to occasionally draw attention to himself, behind the camera.
Which makes a lotta sense because that storyteller is Charles Laughton, one of the iconic stars of the stage and screen through the 1930s and ‘40s, who appeared on the List with the most gusto in Mutiny on the Bounty as a monstrous captain. Laughton was born in 1899, so he grew up with cinema, and was probably exposed to this kind of expressionist silent cinema at his most formative ages.
The movie, incidentally, stars Robert Mitchum as a self-appointed preacher who marries women and then kills them, saying it’s God’s Work (another nod to cinema: there’s a heavy echo here of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton does the same thing but justifies his actions in secular terms).
Anyway: this Mitchum character gets busted for stealing a car and while he’s in prison he gets chummy with a guy who stole $10,000 from a bank but won’t say where ehe hid it.
Bank robber dies and still nobody knows where that money’s hidden. So Mitchum, sprung from the clink, goes to his old prison buddy’s place, woos his widow, and figures that, as the man of the house, he’ll have domain over it and thus, in no time at all, he’ll have the ten grand and he can be on his way.
The widow’s got two kids, though; boy and a girl; and the oldest of the pair, the boy, seems to know right away that Mitchum isn’t the God-fearing man he claims to be. What complicates matters is that the ten grand is hidden in the little girl’s doll that she carries around with her everywhere, and only the children know it.
The movie goes in some unexpected places and, bearing the mark of narrative greatness, it unfolds. A major character dies and steers other major characters into a new location. There’s a journey. Bodies pile up. A different hero steps into the spotlight, played by Lillian Gish—starlet of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation—and the story unfolds even more, culminating in a confrontation that’s about as close to something out of modern horror as the List has come to date.
The movie’s a bit of a throwback to early cinema, but the nostalgia isn’t on full display, and Laughton’s use of older stars and techniques reminds me of Rob Zombie, who does this a lot in The Devil’s Rejects and, more recently, in Three from Hell, where he brings old horror icons up from obscurity and gives them serious and not-so-serious roles that sometimes feel like cheeky nudges to the audience. “Remember this guy?!”
Anyway. Night of the Hunter is a good time, very much up my alley with the horror vibe, but for some reason didn’t ring my bell. Something’s missing and I’m sure what. I don’t remember who told this story, I think it was Gore Vidal, but I heard something somewhere about Charles Laughton, who was gay, choosing to do his famous rendition of an Abraham Lincoln speech on a chez lounge, on stage, sprawled upon it like an heiress. People told him not to. Said the conservative audience would not be amused to find his impersonation of Lincoln so flamboyant. Laughton did it anyway and, if I’m remembering correctly, it went over beautifully.
But that image of Laughton sprawling over the chez lounge to deliver a speech by Abraham Lincoln to a conservative audience, choosing to do things his way regardless of what the audience might expect, is a bold gesture that I admire in an artist but, seeing that this is his only directorial effort, also makes the movie feel kind of…self-conscious. Like he knows that this is his one at-bat and he just wants to show the audience what he can do. How clever he is with the camera, with lighting, with mood and suspense and propulsion and scares. How well he can direct actors.
It feels like a flex.
Maybe, had I known nothing about the movie’s development or who was behind it, I might have enjoyed it more—but the movie looks so distinct, so stylized and personal, that I would have immediately thought, “This is an interesting chapter in somebody’s creative development,” and it would’ve become the kinda movie that I’d wanna watch in chronological order alongside the director’s other movies.
And there wouldn’t be any.
Ahdunno. Simon Callow, who’s currently working on the fourth volume of a magnificent Orson Welles biography, also wrote a book about Laughton that I’m not kinda interested in looking at.