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True Character: Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter (1955) – Blu-ray review

October 21, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

A belated classic, this proved too odd and unique to kickstart Laughton’s career as director but today its exclusivity enhances its inventiveness.

The Night Of The Hunter
(Charles Laughton, 1955)

If the history of the movies has a lesson for wannabe actors, it’s this: you won’t be happy just acting.  While fame and fortune awaits, even those at the top are essentially servants of a medium in which the creative power is granted to the directors calling the shots.  No wonder, then, that ever since Charlie Chaplin realised he’d have to step behind the camera to ensure the perfection of what he was doing in front of it, the Hollywood A-list has made the transition.

For some, it’s been the making of them: Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford, say.  But for others, it has turned out to be a cul de sac: Marlon Brando with One Eyed Jacks, Gary Oldman with Nil By Mouth and, saddest of all, Charles Laughton with The Night Of The Hunter.  The commercial failure and critical mauling of his debut left him broken and he never directed again, leaving posterity to heal the wound by belatedly proclaiming it a classic, and one of the great ‘what ifs’.  If Laughton could turn out something this poetic and unusual on the first attempt, what could he have achieved with further support?

Here, then, is a film that stands pretty much outside of the history of cinema.  It didn’t fit into the ‘pop’ sensibilities of the mid 1950s; nor does it particularly slot easily into today’s revisionist view of the 1950s as a golden age for auteurs – Hitchcock, Ray, Sirk – who proved themselves over time by honing the same themes over and over again.  Instead, Laughton’s film is unique, a fable of good and evil that might have been released with only minor visual changes in the silent era.

The story is simplicity itself: Robert Mitchum’s murderer and thief Harry Powell, who disguises himself as a preacher, worms his way into his lives of a family whose husband was executed for the same crimes… but whose last plunder was never recovered.  Could the dead man’s children know its location?  What follows is a psychodrama about the underbelly of the family unit, a parable about the wolf in sheep’s clothing and a gripping chase thriller.

Yet Laughton isn’t content with these levels but mixes them into a stew rich in atmosphere and allusion – the chase is framed as lyrical retreat from the modern world into a Biblical battle between pre-fall innocence and cruel nature.  It’s a film tinged with the knowledge that there will always be a hunter (be it man or owl) prepared to slaughter the innocents (be they children or rabbits), and that society rests on finding people to protect them.

Laughton was raised in the theatre and the themes are propelled by the richness of language, as characters constantly declare their sense of duty to look after the children.  Yet it is only through action that true responsibility can properly manifest itself: the preacher doesn’t believe a word he says – preferring to see life as a cosmic struggle between love and hate – while the children’s mother is too timid and impressionable to provide the necessary support.  It takes deep reserves of selflessness and courage to suffer the little children, although – this being Hollywood – the hero turns out to be a shotgun-toting grandma played by one-time silent era darling, Lillian Gish.

Yet Laughton proves equally alive to the fluidity of cinematic technique, and directs this like a diagram of light and shadow.  The results aren’t always obvious: it takes a while to realise that Powell has invaded the light, hiding his darkness in the daytime and killing his wife in a bedroom lit to look like a church.  Meanwhile, the night provides cover for the children’s escape, or for Miss Cooper to watch her quarry.  In the film’s scariest moment, a subversion of everything we’ve ever been taught about horror, the arrival of light temporarily blinds Cooper and allows Powell to get away.

The acting, needless to say, is incredible.  Laughton wants archetypes with an edge.  Mitchum brings heavy-lidded menace to Powell but smoothes his blunt thuggery under drawling Southern civility, while Gish masks her genuine care beneath hard-faced pragmatism.  The essential message, a moral lesson that will never fade, is to say: wait and see; the true character will reveal itself.  Sadly, in the case of The Night Of The Hunter, that didn’t happen quickly enough to convince Laughton to step behind the camera again.

The Night Of The Hunter is released on Blu-ray on Monday 28th October. Arrow Film’s excellent package includes the exhaustive doc, Charles Laughton Directs, which is longer than the only film he ever directed.

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