The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Night of the Hunter (United Artists, 1955)

 
One of the great movies of the 1950s
 
 
 
 
 
 
I wasn’t sure whether to
include this film in this blog. Most guides to Westerns don’t. But in the end I
did because it has a Western look and feel to it, it is set somewhere along the
Ohio River, there are guns, and Robert Mitchum wears a frock coat and rides a
white horse. Also, I just love the movie and wanted to write about it.
 
 
Charles Laughton, described
by Laurence Olivier as the acting profession’s only genius, turned out to be a
Welles-like innovator behind the camera. The American Gothic novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb thrilled him and the
role of psychopathic evangelist in the Depression West was made for Mitchum.
Mitch handled the outward charm and inner evil with perfect aplomb. There was
talk of Gary Cooper and he would have had the right look and been fine as the
smiling charmer but he would never have carried off the evil side. Warners and
Columbia turned Laughton and producer Paul Gregory down but UA offered little
more than half a million dollars to make it and Gregory, Laughton and Mitchum
went ahead. They produced one of the greatest films in Hollywood history and
certainly one of the stand-outs of the 1950s.
 
A kind of reprise of Mitchum’s arrival in Rachel and the Stranger of 1948
 
The combination of Laughton,
set designer Hilly Brown and DP Stanley Cortez made it visually stunning, with
stark black & white and shadows and silhouettes emphasizing the sinister
and oppressive. The Walter Schumann music is also glowering and fraught.
Certain scenes stick in the memory, Winters’s hair streaming out in the river
weed under the river, the mounted preacher on the skyline, the shot of the
train, the ecclesiastical A-frame of the bedroom and so on.
 
The bedroom is a church – or crypt
 
Mitchum had the huge good
fortune to play against a dynamic young Peter Graves in the part of the
executed father, a superb Shelley Winters as the wife (although neither Mitchum
nor Laughton could stand her tantrums and scenes) and, especially, an
outstanding Lillian Gish, 62, as the protective foster mother. Don Beddoe and
particularly Evelyn Varden are also very fine as the Spoons, the gullible ice cream
parlor owners who are taken in by the preacher and then want to lynch him when
the truth they had been blind to comes out.
 

Gish: what a fine actress she was.
Roger Ebert described this shot as “Whistler’s mother holding a shotgun”.
 
Laughton never got on with
children and Mitchum ended up doing most of the direction of Billy Chapin (12) and
Sally Jane Bruce (7). They are superb. How children so young play so well is a
mystery. The little boy is fantastically brave.
 
Outstanding child actors
 
The film sank commercially
and critically and Laughton never directed again. Only later did it grow to
become the great classic it now is.

There are odd false touches
– at one point the film seems to have become a menagerie as every critter under
the sun is photographed in foreground as the skiff floats by. But Laughton was
going for the DW Griffith look (one of the reasons he wanted Gish) and I think the idea was magical-biblical. In any case, the scene is eerily memorable.

It is a film of amazing
originality and possibly Mitchum’s greatest role. Is it a Western? Probably
not. It’s expressionist ultra-noir. But see it anyway (preferably in the 1995 35mm print), if you haven’t, and see it again if you have.

 

 “On his right hand Billy’d tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear
And in which hand he held his fate was never clear”
Bruce Springsteen, Cautious Man, on Tunnel of Love, 1987

 
 

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