This week’s pick for Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience is a movie that’s very near and dear to my heart: Charles Laughton’s sole film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, and it just gets better and better. It’s the story of psychotic “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and his pursuit of two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who know the whereabouts of $10,000 stolen by their father. (“It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!”) It’s a horror movie, film noir, document of Americana, religious allegory, morality tale, folktale, fairy tale, and more. Shot with expressionist flair by Stanley Cortez, it’s also one of the best and most beautiful films of any kind.
By all rights, The Night of the Hunter deserves a comprehensive, in-depth review on this site – and, with any luck, I’ll write it in time. For now, however, I’ll just explain my favorite images from it, and then abide. And my “best shot” is…
Keep in mind, The Night of the Hunter is so visually perfect that even its “worst shot” would probably outdo most whole films. It has countless images with similarly striking compositions and measured use of light and shadow. But something about this one really catches my eye and hangs onto it. Maybe it’s how Laughton and Cortez, working on a studio set, made a sunrise that looked more beautiful, more powerful, and more real than any real sunrise. Maybe it’s the tiny silhouette of Powell, riding his stolen horse along the horizon, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Seeing him like that makes him feel like a feature of the landscape, an omnipresent boogeyman, a mythical figure of the worst kind of evil.
Maybe it’s the way the barn door creates a frame within a frame, turning the outside world into its own little movie, which is then split into light and dark halves. (You start to see how carefully they thought out every single shot of this film.) Or maybe it’s how John is sitting upright, protecting his sister from the monster she accepts as her father. This shot is a self-contained narrative, a melodrama of the home (the barn) threatened by looming external forces. And I’m still so enthralled by that sunset. But I can’t content myself to one image. Here’s another of my favorites.
This image proves to me that Laughton and Cortez had a profound understanding of film noir, and an even more profound insight into the cultural currents at work in postwar America. Ruby (Gloria Castillo), the eldest of the foundlings cared for by Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish), is going downtown under the pretext of sewing lessons. Obviously, no sewing lessons are involved. Just look at the crowd of men who fill out the shot, or the words around them: “DRUGS,” “Restaurant,” “Magazines.” Look at the lights about the magazine rack, or the brick facade behind it. This is a picture of temptation at work: the temptations of neon lights, worldliness, and all pleasures money can buy (whether that refers to a soda at the drugstore, or something more).
This shot reminds me of the strip show witnessed by Powell at the beginning of the movie, since they’re both so emblematic of everything the modern city has to offer – everything that Powell and his nemesis Cooper are morally opposed to. Film noir is all about those offers and temptations. And like The Night of the Hunter, film noir (as a set of hundreds of disparate films) doesn’t take a unified attitude toward them. Sometimes it indulges and embraces; sometimes it rejects them. Maybe you could consider The Night of the Hunter as a moral skeleton key to the whole genre. A couple more notes: after rewatching this movie, I see the “Mama Sunshine” household in Palindromes in a totally new light; also, I’m dying to write about its treatment of gender and sexuality. Expect that soon. Now I’ll close with a couple of visual tricks-and-treats.
At least in these shots, Laughton and Cortez are working right out of the Fritz Lang playbook. And fantastically so. Finally, this shot rang a tubular bell for me. Look familiar?
I think Regan MacNeil would agree: it’s a hard world for little things.