Charles Laughton was, by all accounts, an exceptionally complex man. Born in Scarborough in the final gasps of the nineteenth century, he expanded through RADA and the Old Vic to become a veritable ogre; an actor who excelled at creating larger-than-life monsters only to have those monsters follow him back into civilian life. A large, ugly man who kept his homosexuality secret his entire life, Laughton was never entirely comfortable within his own skin. Gnawed by feelings of guilt and self-doubt, an engaged Laughton could produce timeless performances such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Private Life of Henry VIII while a bored and disaffected Laughton proved unmanageable to even the most experienced of directors. His reputation curdling, Laughton bounced in and out of Hollywood until his inability to find work in anything but trifling films prompted him to consider becoming a director.
The producer Paul Gregory nurtured Laughton’s directorial ambitions until the pair came across a novel by Davis Grubb. An instant best-seller as well as a finalist for the 1955 National Book Award, The Night of the Hunter was a full-blown work of Southern Gothic that took as much inspiration from the dark romanticism of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne as it did from real life murders and the stories shared by Grubb’s mother, a depression-era social worker. In search of a script, Laughton and Gregory turned to the critic and screenwriter James Agee who is said to have turned in a work that owed far too much to the literary roots of the novel. Mindful that what works on the page seldom works on the screen, Laughton began to rework the script and turned to the gifted cinematographer Stanley Cortez, the set designer Hilyard Brown and the composer Walter Schumann to build him an entirely cinematic world. Laughton is said to have instructed Cortez to find inspiration in the simplicity of D. W. Griffith, what he got was something decidedly more foreign.
Blamed for the universal aggression of the First World War, 1920s Germany was a world unto itself. Cut adrift from the rest of Western culture, the German film industry found itself struggling to satisfy the demands of a newly awakened populace. According to the German film historian Siegfried Kracauer, films of this period reflect an uncomfortable desire to both escape from the hardships of the world and plunge head-first into an entirely new world free from the censorship and regimented thinking of the past. This inward turn inspired the creation of a series of films which, despite not looking realistic, tried to engage with real-world problems like poverty, class warfare and madness. These films are now referred to as German Expressionism.
The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
The film opens with a disembodied head warning a group of children about the dangers of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Steeped in religious language and projected against a starlit sky, the scene locates the film firmly in our collective imagination. This is neither the real world nor the world of books, it is somewhere in between… somewhere not yet fully complete. This attempt to position the film in a psychological rather than realistic landscape continues with Robert Mitchum’s demented preacher talking directly to God about the need to murder another grieving widow. How many has been now Lord? 6? 12?! Goodness. The preacher’s God is undoubtedly a part of his world but rather than promising salvation or threatening punishment, it whispers exactly what the preacher wants to hear: KILL THEM.
The preacher’s next victim is a woman (Shelley Winters) whose husband is driven to crime by the poverty of the great depression. Adamant that his children will not wind up penniless on the road, the father robs a bank and kills a man but before the police drag him away to be hanged, he makes his son John (Billy Chapin) promise to keep the stolen money hidden. Locked in the same cell as the preacher who was incarcerated for stealing a car, John’s father paints a target on his wife by muttering in his sleep about hidden wealth. The preacher’s mind is made up: here is another widow, ripe for the plucking.
The preacher turns up in the executed man’s hometown and sets about winning over the local population. Initially unsure, the mother soon finds herself caving in to the pressure to get married along with the preacher’s charismatic talk of sin and redemption, love and hate. Consumed by her desire as well as her loneliness and guilt, the mother appears at a torch-lit revival and talks about how her need for expensive dresses and perfume drove her husband to murder. We know this to be untrue but the shadows cast by the torches speak of a far uglier truth: the mother has broken and the world has changed. She has surrendered to the misogynistic fantasies of the preacher who is now her husband.
Seemingly the sole voice of reason in his house, John takes it upon himself to defend his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) against the preacher’s attempts to extract the location of the money. Shot in a decidedly realistic style that is largely at odds with the expressionistic shadows dominating many of the other scenes, these confrontations speak of a conflict between competing psychological realities: Does John’s simple code of loyalty and obligation rule the house? Or is it the far more grandiose and slippery morality of the preacher? Pearl serves as battleground for this psychological confrontation but every time the preacher wins her over, his temper snaps and he reveals his true self.
Things come to a head when the preacher decides to murder the children’s mother. Laughton transports us to the bottom of the river where the floating kelp looks almost identical to the floating hair of the murdered woman tied to her car. Utterly unrealistic and fantastical, this memorable shot is immediately situated in the head of the drunk who finds the body. Again, we are seeing what the real world feels like to those who apprehend it and to the drunk who found it, the body of the mother is as beautiful and unreal as it is unsettling.
The death of the mother serves as a catalyst to the film’s increasing stylisation. When the children decide to flee their home and go on the road, we see them running up stairs towards the light while the dark hands of the preacher reach out from the blackness. Having stolen a boat, the kids drift down the river in a series of exquisitely composed shots that could have come straight from a 1920s German film or an 1800s German woodcut. Like Hansel and Gretel, the children sleep soundly while their dreams contort nature into a thousand twisted shapes. Moving from town to town, pursued by a singing preacher who is forever a black shadow picked out against the horizon, the children see the poverty of the great depression for themselves and their inability to process their situation forces them further and further into the world of dreams. The world of the film rises up to meet the children because they are not equipped to make sense of the world as it truly is. The titular night of the hunter looks a lot like a fairy tale because the children are using those kinds of stories to make sense of their world. Pursued by Bluebeard, the children cloak themselves in folktale.
The psychotropic visuals are toned back when the children make landfall and are taken in by an older woman (Lillian Gish) with a habit of looking after waifs and strays. Brilliantly, the stylisation of the river journey melts away as John and Pearl find themselves in a world that makes sense to them; a world of chores, regular meals and an adult authority figure that wants to care for them rather than murder them and steal their money. Slowly, the kids unwind but one of the old woman’s other charges is gearing up to unwittingly betray them.
Gloria Castillo’s Ruby is a child poised on the edge of adulthood. Devoted to her aged guardian but painfully aware of a wider world just beyond her reach, she pretends to take sewing lessons as an excuse to hang out with local boys. Ruby’s walk into town looks like a scene from a 1930s musical; positioned in the centre of the shot, she walks towards the small town’s ice cream store while oversized neon lights jump out at her. Button-holed by the charismatic preacher, she wolfs down her ice cream while fishing for compliments. ‘Am I pretty?’ she asks ‘Tell me I’m beautiful!’ she pleads as the preacher fumbles with his flick-knife, a lethal sex organ buried in his pocket that desperately wants out and into that supple young flesh.
Having learned the children’s whereabouts, the preacher makes his way to the old woman’s house and the pair glare at each other through the darkness. Laughton again returns us to the idea of competing realities by pitching Mitchum’s elegant baritone against the strained but more authentic voice of the old woman: Leaning… leaning… When the end finally comes and the preacher is hauled away by police, the similarity to the arrest of his real father completely overwhelms John. Exhausted from protecting himself and his sister against the hate-filled world of the preacher he reacts to the arrest with a hysterical grief that only fades with the passage of time.
Critics reacted to Night of the Hunter with a level of aggression that seems not only unwarranted but downright sacrilegious in hindsight: Hooked on the pseudo-realistic melodramas of the 1950s, critics and audiences were not equipped to deal with a film that sought to recreate the emotional landscape of a traumatised child. Fragile and ambivalent towards Hollywood at the best of times, Laughton took the criticisms to heart and never directed again.
Fifty-nine years later and Night of the Hunter is getting a fresh cinematic release. Though certainly a vindication of Charles Laughton’s directorial vision, this re-release should also give us pause to think about the great films he never got round to making. If Laughton’s first film could take a country by surprise and re-discover a lost cinematic vocabulary, what might a more mature talent have accomplished? How many of today’s radical films are swept aside by an audience not yet ready to comprehend them? Night of the Hunter is a monument to what great cinema can accomplish, but it is also a reminder of the fragile nature of artistic endeavour.