Published on October 31st, 2014 | by Dan Gvozden0
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER – RETRO REVIEW
Lester Dinoff in the July 20, 1955, edition of “Motion Picture Daily” calls Night of the Hunter “an off-beat, unusual picture which should command rapt attention or slight discomfort.” He continues to say, “This review found it fascinating, but suited especially for ‘art’ theatres or theatres whose patrons enjoy controversial product.” Perhaps it was this controversial nature that found Night of the Hunter to be dismissed largely by critics and audiences when it was first released.
There are few films of the time that I’ve seen that place such innocent characters in such a dark and stark world. The subject matter of Night of the Hunter is strictly adult fare and yet at times the film dips into whimsical fairy tale fare. This wild mixing of genres, while delicious to avid filmgoers, who can handle wild shifts from one to another, was probably toxic to a mainstream audience trained to rely on the genre tropes of a single genre per film.
Now Night of the Hunter is widely regarded as director Charles Laughton and writer James Agee’s masterwork, even making #34 on the AFI’s top 100 list. I imagine that as films have grown more technically sophisticated and thematically challenging, modern audiences have slowly been able to react to Night of the Hunter’s dramatic thematic changes with greater ease. This has allowed audiences and critics to mine the innumerable ideas contained within the film’s daring plotting.
I cannot speak to how James Agee’s work as a critic influenced his writing for Night of the Hunter, as my relationship to his work is still in its infancy, but as a semi-professional critic myself I can compare my experience with screenwriting to his. Film critics see so many films a year that genre filmmaking can become incredibly comfortable if not soporific. Night of the Hunter moves from idea to idea, genre to genre, and theme to theme so rapidly that I have to think that it must reflect James Agee’s own desire for films to play more loosely with formula and be full of ideas.
My own reactions to Night of the Hunter echo the review by Lester Dinoff from 1955, so perhaps the times don’t change quite as much as I want to believe. The film is hypnotizing at all times especially when Stanley Cortez’s cinematography takes over and casts its spell. Silhouettes, underwater photography, and harsh chiaroscuro lighting leave an indelible impression on me every time that I watch the film. Robert Mitchum’s performance as Reverend Harry Powell, a character who uses religion to justify his misogyny and homicidal actions, is a terrifying characterization that commands the screen at all times. His nocturnal hymnals are haunting and the perfect marriage between Cortez and Mitchum’s work.
I have massive respect for the film’s daring attitude to address and comment on issues and ideas that were way ahead of its time. The overarching theme of the corrosive influence of money, particularly on our culture’s obsession with it, and how it affects young John is as sharp of a critique as they come. The moment where John conflates the two father figures in his life and shows compassion and forgiveness is emotionally moving and emblematic of the film’s own combination of innocence and corruption and yet ultimate optimism.
Night of the Hunter packs in so many ideas into its short runtime that to discuss or even list them here would be an exercise in senselessness. Perhaps that’s why my feelings about the film are a bit mixed. I have always felt that the rapidity of thematic shifts and the varied quality of performances have revealed the filmmaking in a way that I find distracting. While the film sports innumerable ideas and visual themes, from a storytelling opening to a Christian fairy tale boat ride with animals, none of them are sustained long enough for me to appreciate them as complete motifs. Outside of Mitchum’s Powell, I have always felt that from a contemporary viewpoint so many of the characters in the film operate as storytelling archetypes to serve the plot and themes over legitimate character-based storytelling. For example, it is thematically interesting how Powell’s early supporters are the first ones to call for his lynching but I am never quite sure why or how that transition occurred.
The biggest hurdle I face when watching the film is the acting from young John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). The two are clearly untrained actors and this lack of experience definitely adds an air of authenticity to their performances but I’ve always felt that it clashed against the specificity of the film’s direction. Laughton’s ideas are so clear and his desires from the actors so precise that when the children move and talk they do it in way that seems so prepared and inauthentic in the moment. I’ve always felt that it has muddied their motivations and kept me at a distance from how they operate as characters. When Powell returns to the children later in the film, after a murderous chase, Pearl walks right over to him and hugs his leg for an extended period of time. I want to understand her perspective on the world and I feel like I have never been allowed to.
Yet I wonder if my reluctance to fully embrace Night of the Hunter is in some way my own fault. The film was released almost sixty years ago and was incredibly daring for the time. Today for a film to be as daring as Night of the Hunter is an incredible rarity, though I think these films still exist. With each film I view, it is always up to me as a viewer to decide whether or not I will allow myself to connect or not connect with a work of creativity, both emotionally and imaginatively. So far I have been unable to connect to the wavelength that Night of the Hunter operates on, to truly give myself away to the film and look past the elements that reveal the filmmaking to me.
I wonder if perhaps this is not a problem with Night of the Hunter but with me as a viewer. All art contains artifice and perhaps I need to be able to look past Night of the Hunter’s.