The Night of the Hunter ★★★★★

First viewing in 7+ years, and only seems more complex, disturbing, and impossible to fully grasp the various layers working through Laughton’s singular work. Hugely influenced by Griffith and Murnau, Hunter resembles a comic book more than any other film in cinematic history, as in Laughton opts for a series of tableaux shots with very little movement (a few shots recall another 1955 masterpiece, Ordet, and maybe Dreyer in general). All the tracking shots are usually left to right or right to left movement, and there’s definitely a flatness to his images the makes it feel all the more painterly.

But what we really have here is a film built on the power of manipulation; where the same authority (religion, the law, society) that protects the young can be used to destroy them. This leads to the obvious McCarthyist parable about one form of authority terrorizing two innocents into committing a speech act that would lead to their death (the uncle, when he discovers Winters in that sequence that feels ripped from L’Atalante, also parallels this theme). But more than McCarthyism, Laughton builds a world where society itself is always polluted by its own institutions, whether by ignorance (the Spoons’ general trustworthiness), shame (Winters duped into needing to be “cleansed”), or vigilantism (the final mob at the end, once again proving that even when right is done, wrongness persists). For a society drenched in God, Laughton portrays an extremely godless society, where everyone relies on earthly authority instead of believing in a heavenly body. Everything can have double meanings (two hands might look the same but they represent polar opposites of good and evil), and yet the film turns to hope by the end, Eve’s apple of temptation turned into a gesture of loving grace. Is Gish a triumph of humanity, or its last hope? Even she needs a shotgun when society is all done, and she cannot protect the teenage Ruby forever, who is bound to go looking for love in the wrong places. "They abide and they endure,” but children always grow up.

Agee (a born Kentuckian and I would argue as the greatest film critic of all time) gets both the Baptist rhetoric and the South, some perceptive uses of language throughout as well as the general big-ness to the characters (an over-corrective in order to display authority, not simply over-acting as some audiences might interpret). Song is made an essential backdrop to the film, the innocent voices both adding to the fear but eventually in combat with evil as Lillian Gish joins Mitchum in a harmony, only topped by Pearl’s own ballad down the river, guided by the only society still free from the danger of the Word—the animals. But even animals have their own structures; the owl will always catch the rabbit (“It’s a hard world for little things.”)

Not surprising that this is Mitchum’s most cited great performance, but it’s very opposite most of his other iconic roles (Out of the Past, Crossfire, Eddie Coyle). There’s no heaviness here, no sense of existential guilt pervading his body, which doesn’t lumber as much as steamroll. He is pure, unadulterated terror. Even when he goes screaming into the farm, scared off by the blasts of a shotgun, those howls have a sense of laughter, of a maniacal energy that can never be fully understood. But even old Powell is sympathetic; Laughton repeats John’s “Don’ts” that begin the movie as he sees his father thrown away, unleashing the money from his body. You can never escape your sins.