My Park Circus #1: The Night of the Hunter

2 August 2012

By Allan Hunter - film critic for The Daily Express and co-director of The Glasgow Film Festival. He is also the Scotland correspondent for Screen International.

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Charles Laughton only directed one film but it is a classic. The Night Of The Hunter is gothic film noir at its most intense with a performance from the perennially undervalued Robert Mitchum that is as good as any he ever gave. Mitchum is Harry Powell, a preacher with "love" and " hate" tattooed on his knuckles.  He roams the countryside like an unstoppable force of nature, preying on vulnerable women, exciting their devotion and sending them to meet their maker. His flamboyant presence is a startling violation of the innocent Huck Finn world of steamboats and riverbank picnics in which the film unfolds. 

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A spell in prison brings Harry into contact with a convicted robber condemned to die. His legacy is $10,000 of ill-gotten gains that nobody has ever found. His two little children John and Pearl know where it is hidden and now Harry has their scent in his nostrils.

Adapted from a David Grubb novel by James Agee, The Night Of The Hunter is a wonderful testimony to Laughton's ability to bring out the best in his collaborators. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez really does sculpt with light. Mitchum is constantly shown as a dark shadow that materialises in a window frame and saunters into view like an inky dark blot on a bright landscape. Virtue is bathed in bright white light, evil is as black as hell.

The film is a tribute to the silent cinema of DW Griffith and FW Murnau. The magical boat ride down river has echoes of Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and if Mitchum is the personification of evil then Griffith's muse Lillian Gish is the embodiment of goodness as the righteous soul who gives sanctuary to the lost children.

The film is a unique combination of fairytale and thriller, biblical nightmare and expressionist dream with poetry and horror in some of its most memorable images, not least the watery grave that contains the body of Shelley Winters.

Laughton also brings out the best in his child actors, Sally Jane Bruce and Billy Chapin both of whom are still alive but long departed from the world of filmmaking.

The Night Of The Hunter is both timeless and modern with Mitchum's 1950s maniac the prototype for all the serial killers that were still to come and there are moments amidst the flower and fauna of the American heartland that might have inspired a Herzog or a Terrence Malick.The Night Of The Hunter is always worth revisiting. December 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Laughton's death. You hope there will be seasons throughout the world paying ample tribute to his astonishing, Oscar-winning range as an actor but that there is also room to celebrate his one extraordinary achievement as a director.

Allan Hunter (pictured, above) is the film critic for The Daily Express and co-director of The Italian Film Festival in Scotland and The Glasgow Film Festival. He is also the Scotland correspondent for Screen International. 

In My Park Circus #8, Jean Lizza, film programmer for the Shadow Electric open-air cinema in Melbourne, also chose this much-cherished Charles Laughton classic.