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  • Writer's pictureThaïs Castralli

weekly inspiration: The Night of The Hunter (1955)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And to kick off the holiday season, which is my absolute favorite, I am going to share weekly inspirations from movies I watch every year to get into the Christmas spirit. To start the list with an unusual but most certainly Christmas movie here’s the only incursion of master artist Charles Laughton into film directing: The Night of the Hunter (1955).

If you haven’t watched this movie, please, do! I just had the chance to rewatch it at the New Beverly Cinema in 35mm with a full audience. And I realized that is definitely the ultimate way to do it. The reactions from old fans and new viewers discovering the surprises of the movie connected in a way to make this a unique experience. Additionally, the impression the movie leaves on you is heightened by the powerful image seen on the high screen. I am biased on stating that, for I am a black and white lover. So to watch the movie’s harsh contrast at play in striking images in its full glory on a pristine print was a monochrome feast for the eyes.

If you have watched this movie before you know exactly why it is a Christmas story. Furthermore, it is a fairy-tale, grounded in reality.

As mentioned before, this is the only movie directed by the great actor and theater director Charles Laughton. It is truly a stand-alone masterwork those pictures that unites the highest artistic efforts of all professionals involved. Main star Robert Mitchum, who usually restrain from commenting on the behind the scenes aspects of production and movie politics, was reported to have much later stated The Night of the Hunter was his favorite movie and Laughton his favorite director to work with. At the same time, the movie’s cinematographer, master of light Stanley Cortez, stated, after finishing the picture, that only two directors he had worked with understood light, or as he called it “that incredible thing that can’t be described” - Orson Welles (whom he worked with for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)) and Charles Laughton.

{Cinematography is composed by high contrast black and white, expressionist lighting, and very organized framework - compositions that usually deal with frames within frames or geometry representation, mostly trapping characters inside the frame. The framework takes advantage of the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 in which the movie is shot on - in between a square ratio (1.33:1) and the usual rectangular 16:9}

{Production design and lighting work together on monochromatic separation that represents good and evil. The idea of pureness and darkness is also present on the wardrobe choices}

To further the importance of this movie in cinema’s history it is necessary to explicit the presence of Lillian Gish in the cast. The actress was handpicked by Laughton to play the foster mother that opens the picture telling tales to her children, and basically to the audience. Considered one of the first stars of cinema, she started her career in silent short movies in 1912. She became one of the first household names on the silver screen thanks to her partnership with director D. W. Griffith, who had the Gish sisters as his muses. She appears in Griffith’s most well known movies, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916). However, she was already his inspiration prior to the meteoric ascension he had with The Birth of a Nation, starring in feature-length movies he directed, which were uncommon for the period, such as Home, Sweet Home (1914) and Judith of Bethulia (1914).

Lillian Gish can be seen as a mother of cinema and that is the idea Charles Laughton evokes placing her in the role of a protective foster mother who shelters lonely, lost children. She is a storyteller, continuously sharing tales from the bible to teach her protégées. She is also not scare to protect them, going onto full lioness mode, appearing in many of her scenes with a shot gun in hand, guarding the innocence she shelters.

When Charles Laughton casted her he mentioned that back when he went to the movie theaters as a child, during the silent era, right when Lilian Gish was beginning and then on the prime of her career, audiences used to seat straight on their seats. He explained that now viewers slumped down, eating inside the theater, and not offering their full attention to the what was being shown onscreen. He wanted the audience to sit up straight again. Solution: Lillian Gish, mother of cinema, with weapon in hand, ready to protect the pureness of audiences to come, against whichever villain the screen would bring. And that is exactly how the movie starts. As pointed out before, Gish’s character appears as a floating head telling a tale. The following image is the faces of the children listening to it. It is as if us, as audience, were also sitting down to listen to the story she is about to start. The opening shot that takes away from this intro is of children playing. That is seem in a bird’s eye view that approaches the playing sight at the moment one of the children finds the scene of a crime. Instead of lingering around, the camera pulls back to the panoramic view and exits the scene as quickly as it entered - leaving the children to their own fate. This beginning hints to the narrative and visual style of the movie: a fairy-tale, but much like in the veins of the Brothers Grimm it is a horror rolled up on a children’s story wrap.

We start the narrative following the traveling preacher Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum). In great sequences that explain much with only one shot, carrying minor production design and expressionistic lighting, the viewer is told that this man of God may not be quite so holy. The first example of it is him standing trial for a robbed car and presenting himself as a preacher. The courthouse scene is translated in only one shot, with only the minimum people required for the moment. No extras present, no embellishment of scenario, no realistic lighting. And above it all, “holy man” Harry Powell expresses his alleged innocence to the judge with his back to the camera. The lack of access the audience has to his face is the first signal the movie offers not to trust this man. In complete opposition to the concept of looking into someone’s eyes to verify if they are telling the truth, Mitchum’s character turn’s his back to the audience in order to protect his façade - as if we could see through him, or in other words, if the lens of the camera would be able to silently interrogate him. Therefore, right at the start, Charles Laughton presents a protagonist that - although charming and mesmerizing - is not worthy of the public’s sympathy:

{Courtroom scene is shown in just one shot, with one angle, and displaying only the necessary elements to represent the space}

{The prison cell is another location that is stripped down to the minimum necessary to represent the space. In this movie, all scenarios that have a brief existence in the narrative are shown with one or only a few shots, showing only one side and exploring the minimum amount of angles necessary to tell that passage of the story. This allows the idea of scene establishment to be quickly conveyed to the audience without loosing time, and with the main focus staying with the characters. These "bare-necessities" type of portrayal for a set is also in line with the concept of showing spaces as one would in a children's story, with cut out representations or sketches}

After the intro sequence showcasing the discovery of a crime scene, the movie presents Powell traveling in his car, while speaking to God. He conducts murders to alleviate the toll of sinners on Earth, and how he sees himself as an emissary from the Almighty in this mission. It becomes clear to the audience that he goes from town to town "doing the Lord's dirty work".

The narrative, however, unfolds in a way that it does not follow the preacher, whereas it follows a stack of stolen money. This will allow the audience to connect with the actual heroes of the story: siblings John and Pearl Harper. From Powell being tried, the picture goes on to introduce us to young children playing at their yard when their father hastily appears carrying money from a bank heist and announcing he is being pursued by the police. The children are the only witnesses to the confession and who carry his secret of where the money is hidden.

The father is caught and ends up sharing a prison a cell with no other than Harry Powell, who is keen on discovering the whereabouts of the money. Once in freedom, he sets out on a quest after Ben Harper’s stolen fortune, traveling to the small town his wife and kids still live in with the stigma of being the family of a criminal. The citizens believe the wealths of the robbery are lost at the bottom of a lake, so when preacher Powell arrives charming Mrs. Harper, young Pearl, and other women in town, the suspicions on him being after the robbery proceeds are quickly discarded. The only character who is aware of his real intentions is son John, who, at this point, becomes the protagonist of the narrative. Which also pinpoints the start of a more dramatic use of the visual style that has been employed so far with expressionistic lighting and scenarios. From this instance on, the cinematography’s high contrast is largely explored. For several moments, and progressively, scenarios and art elements are shown only in silhouette, creating landscapes that are fully black and white, with no shades of grey. It is done as to resemble arts and crafts cut outs for storytelling:

From the moment John and preacher Powell meet, the fairy-tale describes a nightmare through the eyes of a child. The crossover of characters, and the impact one is going to have on the other is shown visually upon Powell’s arrival in town. Before even meeting face to face, their faces “meet”, with the influence of Powell overpowering the boy. This scene encapsulates the movies idea - it sums up what the viewer has seen so far while preparing them for what is to come. John invents a bed time story for sister Pearl, completely based on their reality, and the secret holds. Meanwhile the imagery showcases the visual representation of the shadow Powell is about to cast on this family’s life:

After a long journey fleeing from the never resting Powell and his hunt after the stolen money, John and Pearl arrive at Rachel Cooper’s property - the mother of all lost children played by Lillian Gish. She takes the siblings in. It doesn’t take long for preacher Powell to come knocking in her door, claiming the children are his run-away son and daughter. Realizing his evil intentions towards the kids, Rachel pushes Powell away with shotgun in hand:

{Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sending preacher Powell (Robert Mitchum) away in a sign of defiance that will kick off a series of confrontations between the characters that symbolize good and evil. Another geometrical composition. This time instead of clear lines formed by harsh shadows or reinforced by production design, the main design is created by the positioning of the actors in frame}

This act of defiance signals the combat that will begin between both characters for the prized children. The duel starts with the forces of good and evil, embodied by the characters, facing each other in a signing battle of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. The hymn, that is sung through the movie by Powell receives a new connotation in this scene. When he signs the lyrics, he leaves behind the words relating to Jesus or Lord. Although he presents and believes himself as an envoy God, his actions display how he may consider he is a god himself. Through Rachel’s lips, the hymn regains the word “Jesus” and the full meaning behind its creation is reinstated: “The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms” (from Deuteronomy 33:27). God is the refuge, and Rachel Copper is the guardian.

This battle of powers is portrayed through creative aesthetics that only reinforce the visual motifs showcased throughout the narrative:

The aesthetics it so boldly embraces makes The Night of the Hunter, in my opinion, an innovative masterpiece in terms of visual storytelling. It leans on a children’s tale approach to represent through pantomime a horrific story with clear, full basis on reality. Charles Laughton uses dream-like enchantment in the narrative thread and visually as an escaping mechanism for the characters of the siblings. Its the way he devises for them to find refuge from the nightmare that takes place during their awaken hours. And, in a manner, isn’t it what we do to scape our horrors in life?

{Happy Holidays! - straight from "the Hunter"}

Thank you for reading!

Until next week… and next inspiration!


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