The Night of the Hunter

Yes, that Charles Laughton: Yorkshireman, legendary character actor (where are all the character actors today, huh?) and consummate man of the stage. And, for one night only, film director.

Cast Robert Mitchum as a con artist who poses as a preacher to part gullible widows from their inheritance and you have a bit of a cliché. Put him on the trail of the widow and children one-time cellmate, hanged for his part in an armed robbery gone bad, and you have a recipe for a classic slice of film noir. Buit anybody looking here for gritty realism and suspense is going to be disappointed. Everything is just too over-the-top to be credible in that context.

But look at it from another angle; as a fairy-tale, the kind of dark, nightmarish fairy-tale that the Grimm brothers harvested from the forests of Hessen; then you find yourself looking at a little bit of genius. It all makes sense then. Mitchum pulls off the pantomime baddie with all the sinister charm that you could wish for. Lillian Gish gives a peach of a performance as a feisty fairy godmother: terrifying but golden-hearted. The children recall Hansel and Gretel, lost in flight from danger. That boat carrying the children down the Ohio River, watched over by the animals under a huge crescent moon, reeks of allegory; a journey from tarnished innocence into the wisdom of experience (paralleled by Miss Cooper’s teenaged ward, Ruby, in her early sexual encounters). Naturally, it all brings to mind Huckleberry Finn; Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine; even Watership Down. (And yes, The Lord of the Rings if you must.)

Looked at in the right way, this film is a little gem that deserves to be better-known than it is. It’s such a shame that Charles Laughton never had a chance to weave such magic again.