Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton

Laughton's only film as director is of course rightly held up as a masterpiece. However it wasn't always so. Back on it's initial release the idea of a scripture quoting, spiritual singing man of the cloth, who also just so happened to carry a flick knife next to his bible, and have a nice little sideline in murder, was a little too much for the great unwashed. Resulting in both poor reviews and box office takings and a swift exit from the theaters. A quick glance at the top three grossing films in the US for 1955 shows just what people were willing to shell out their hard earned nickles for, and just why something as dark and downright nasty as The Night of the Hunter didn't stand a chance. Those top three films were Lady and the Tramp, Mister Roberts and Guys and Dolls, bright life affirming films every one, none of them dealing with anything quite as grim as this little beauty.

So it's no wonder that Laughton never directed again (on screen that is, he would direct several theater productions), for a start he had his own demons to battle, being a closet homosexual (was their any other kind back then), and having a reputation for being one of the more difficult types to be working in Hollywoodland. He apparently had a huge dislike of children too, which must have made directing this a particular chore for him. The old adage of never working with children or animals might as well have read children or Charles Laughton, as anyone who had ever had the pain of doing so would probably tell you. Still Laughton was a phenomenal actor, and worked with many of the greats, Lean, Kubrick, Hitchcock and Renoir to name but four.

Anyway I digress, The Night of the Hunter has dated, it's not quite as evil as a modern audience would expect, Robert Mitchum is a joy to watch but not as menacing as he is in Cape Fear for example. Although having said that the reveal of Willa at the bottom of the river is still grim, especially the way the camera lingers for so long. Some of the dialogue sounds quite hokey now, and it has to be said Sally Jane Bruce who played Polly is awful, no wonder that she 'retired' after this role. Billy Chapin is somewhat better as John Harper, but both could have probably done with a little more help from their director. It's been said that Mitchum himself helped out with the children, which frankly baffles me, since it would have been better for the film if the kids had been wary of him. That way the tension would have come across on screen without having to try and cajole the little ones into something as tricksy as acting. But there you go, what do I know?

The acting, story and direction on a whole are all pretty solid, but the real star of the film is Stanley Cortez. One of the top cinematographers of his day, Cortez is responsible for the what we see up on the screen, that shot of the boat drifting through a spiders web, the effortless matching of lighting between location and set, that's all down to him. Cortez is a master, just have a quick shufty through his filmography and you'll see what I mean;- Ambersons, Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss. He knew his noir, so it's a good thing he was on this picture, since if Night of the Hunter is anything it's noir, and not only that but noir at it's best.

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