The Night of the Hunter Rides Again

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Published November 17, 2010

 

STILL FROM THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER COURTESY OF CRITERION

Even if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter (1955), you’ve seen traces of its influence: Radio Raheem’s “HATE and LOVE” speech in Do the Right Thing, the ride down the river in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, half the aesthetic choices in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. It’s one of the most legendary films maudit, a deranged blend of silent-era art cinema and then-contemporary B-picture plotting that nearly no one knew what to make of upon its release.

A lot of the talk around The Night of the Hunter works along the lines of navel-gazing wish-fulfillment: What if Charles Laughton’s debut film had been even remotely successful financially, or evenhandedly received by the critics who savaged it? What if Laughton had lived to see his film elevated to the canon, or its component parts cannibalized by later filmmakers? What if he made another?

But Night of the Hunter—the Appalachian-gothic noir about a widow-killing preacher (Robert Mitchum) stalking a pair of children down the Ohio River—is, as the Criterion edition out this week reveals, more than a Charles Laughton film. It’s a perfect storm of collaborators composed of some of the mid-century’s most daring popular artists: directing by Laughton, acting by Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish; writing by Davis Grubb and James Agee.

Less heralded is cinematographer Stanley Cortez—a collaborator of Orson Welles and Fritz Lang—whose incomparable lighting is the film’s crowning touch. Cortez, working in close collaboration with Laughton and Oscar-winning production designer Hilyard Brown, composed stark, high-contrast images that derived equally from the German Expressionists and FSA photography.

Cortez uses old-fashioned irises, then-revolutionary helicopter shots, and extraordinarily artificial lighting to visualize the film’s cracked blend of murder, nature, and old-time relijun. He deploys false-perspective photography to make a little person astride a pony look like Mitchum’s Reverend Powell looming in silhouette on the horizon. He blends goofily surreal close-ups of animals into the children’s voyage down river to play at the film’s fairy tale-like structure.

It’s such a fully realized vision that it deserves the lavish treatment it receives—a gorgeous new transfer based on the film’s restoration at the UCLA Film Archive, documentary excerpts on the film’s production, and Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” (2002), a feature-length documentary largely composed of dailies and rushes of Laughton working with the actors. As a document of an artist’s process, it’s invaluable, and as a standalone work, it’s remarkably entertaining, with Laughton’s dyspeptic dissatisfaction informing our take on the actors’ work.

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER IS NOW AVAILABLE FROM THE CRITERION COLLECTION.