Film Diary: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Sunday, 13 July 2008

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.


2 Responses to “Film Diary: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)”

  1. Gloria Says:

    Pity indeed, when you think that he had at least two very interesting projects to direct in queue (Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and an adaptation of Thomas Wolfe). Alas, Laughton had too many interesting things to say to be allowed to do so: only mediochrity seems to thrive… Take for instance how many films Richard Attenborough has directed!

    BTW, I have a campaign in my blog to ask for a proper DVD release of “The Night of the Hunter”, feel free to check it:

  2. ken Says:

    fantastic post!

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