The Night of the Hunter is the only film Hollywood let Charles Laughton direct. It was adapted from a novel of the same title by James Agee, who only worked on one other produced screenplay, African Queen, a little slip of a movie you might have heard of. The Laughton-Agee collaboration was a critical and commercial disappointment when it was released in 1955. No one was willing to give Laughton another go. Agee’s health was declining, he would die soon after.
If you only had one film to your credit, this would be a film to have. When Technicolor and Cinemascope were all the rage, Laughton chose to shoot a tight, clear, black and white film. Laughton was an accomplished actor and had worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood and he paid attention. The film’s style is part noir, part gothic horror, part neo-expressionist, but it is not pastiche. It is something all of its own, genre-busting and bringing to fore something new and fresh out of bits of story as old as time.
The story is Grimm’s Fairy Tales meets D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and laced through with old-time, old-fashioned Old Testament religion. Robert Mitchum plays a con artist who uses a preacher’s collar to worm his way into the heart and bed of an unsuspecting widow and mother, played by Shelley Winters. Winters gives an excellent performance but this is Mitchum’s movie. In this role, Mitchum harnesses his own natural tendency to flout convention and laconic sexuality and hones them into the diamond sharp edges of a cold-blooded psychopathic killer. He is the Snake in the Garden, Beelzebub come to Earth, destroyer of innocence, in relentless hunt for what we hold dear. Lillian Gish swoops in, the Archangel Michael, to do battle with Mitchum and protect the vulnerable.
The film was ahead of its time, not something movie-going audiences were ready to see. You can tell that future directors were paying attention and can see it in the early work of Stanley Kubrick, Sydney Lumet and others.
In other words, you need to see this film. Lucky for you, Turner Classic Movies is playing it this Thursday evening, July 5, at 9:00pmCST. Plan your evening accordingly.