Watched Jul 17, 2012
Steve Grzesiak’s review:
"It's still here among us, tainting us."
So much has been written and spoken about The Night Of The Hunter over the last 57 years, and for the most part the focus of such attention has been on three things - the terrible critical and box office reception it received on its release, the fact that it was to be Charles Laughton's only (credited) film as director and Robert Mitchum's performance.
These three elements loom over The Night Of The Hunter, casting a shadow over it almost as foreboding and dominating as the shadows cast by Mitchum's psychopathic preacher as he stalks around the home of Shelley Winters in an attempt to terrify her children into revealing the whereabouts of the $10,000 that their murdering robber of a father stashed somewhere.
These elements, of course, deserve to continue to be discussed. After all, with the film now regarded by most as a true landmark in American cinema, much intrigue is still present about why it was so badly received in the first place, a reception that drove Laughton to despair and also caused him to cut down on his acting quite significantly after its release, too.
Adam Cook's splendid review rightly muses that, quite simply, people in 1955 were "complete fucking idiots" to miss its qualities, a musing that I find it hard to disagree with whenever I am confronted by a film that is so obviously brilliant to me that I find it hard to understand why anyone could have missed it in the first place.
But I just wonder if many people expected something entirely different from The Night Of The Hunter and were so disarmed by what they got that they became disgruntled that they were not getting another archetypal film noir. This never feels much like a film noir to me and with Mitchum having chalked off a number of outstanding performances in noirs over the previous 10 years or so, maybe people were expecting more of the same?
I don't know why I'm defending these critics, really, because criticising something just because it didn't turn out to be themed a specific way has always seemed churlish to me. But I've become almost as fascinated by the legends surrounding the film as I have by the film itself in the hours since I watched it. Getting to the bottom of why The Night Of The Hunter's quality was missed first time round could perhaps be the key to discovering its true genius.
As I say, I don't really see it much as a film noir. It's more like a Gothic melodrama mixed with a German expressionist horror film. Strangely shaped little houses and buildings dot the landscape as the two children (both managing to be charming rather than irritating, thankfully) flee from Mitchum. A small town allows itself to fall into the grip of religious fundamentalism and evangelism when the preacher shows them the conflict between 'LOVE' and 'HATE'. Shadows spread across the scenery and engulf it at the most foreboding of times.
The performances are deliberately and delightfully overwrought, and characters behave in ways that you could not have predicted. At the centre of this is Mitchum, with a performance the likes of which you could not possibly prepare yourself for. It takes a rare talent to be given a role such as this, which requires no real degree of subtlety or restraint, and create a performance that still manages to be as genuinely chilling as anything that I have seen in all the time I have been watching films without ever managing to slip into the realms of pantomime. It is surely a work of brilliance that will rarely ever be matched (although he probably did in Cape Fear), although it's clear that Laughton's framing of him, especially at the end, does help immensely. His scene in the bedroom with Winters, also excellent, is one of the nastiest and most verbally brutal scenes that anyone could fashion without wandering into the profane.
It really is a beautiful piece of work in so many ways. It is sad that sometimes the loss of Laughton as a potentially great director as a result of this film's reception does threaten to engulf it as a whole, but once you have witnessed Mitchum's barely repressed fury at a scantily clad dancer, The Night Of The Hunter pulls itself clear and then some.