Celluloid Overjoyed: The Night of the Hunter

by Deanna McMillan

Unlike the whitewashed subject of domestic violence in my previous TLF piece, child abuse has been hunky dory with Hollywood since its inception. Few filmmakers have shied away from the subject, providing an easy plot device which will lead to a character’s ruin or triumph. Given how many Hollywood stars had violent childhoods–many becoming abusers themselves–these portrayals of child abuse tended to be heavy-handed and overtly moralistic.

Which makes the unsentimental approach taken in The Night of the Hunter (1955) all the more fascinating. Ordinarily I would not consider a film this widely available as appropriate for this column, but I recently watched it in a proper theatrical setting with a movie buff friend who’d never heard of it.

Caveat: Screenwriter James Agee and I share a hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee; a good place to grow and an even better place to leave. We both lost our fathers at a young age (his to a car accident and mine to abandonment). To say that I hold an affinity for Agee’s work as a writer and critic is a devastating understatement. And like in his posthumous novel A Death in the Family (which I first read in NYC, where the author met his death), Agee cements the South of The Night of the Hunter at its most beautiful and its most monstrous. It’s a hard world for little things, to paraphrase Lillian Gish’s line in the film, and I can think of few films that handle child abuse as unflinchingly yet without exploitation.

Charles Laughton’s lone film directorial effort does not seem like an obvious choice for a holiday film showing, yet I had the privilege to see it in fully restored glory at the Portage Theater on Dec. 19, thanks to the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Creepy widow killer Robert Mitchum wandering through the southern gothic landscape is the exact opposite of Jimmy Stewart racing through Bedford Falls, yet both films tackle the defeat of hatred by love. The Night of the Hunter’s finale falls on Christmas, making the resolution of the Harper children’s tribulations resonate even more.

Because what else was the Christmas story that those of us who grew up in Christian households learned but hallucinatory and fantastic? A pregnant teenager and her husband running from the potential murder of their potential son almost mirrors the film’s protagonists, John and Pearl Harper, on their escape from Mitchum’s Preacher Powell, running on little sleep to protect their lives and inheritance. The children are turned away from other homes and safe hiding places, only to turn up on old maid Rachel Cooper’s (Gish) doorstep.

Cahiers du Cinema ranked The Night of the Hunter as the second most beautiful film ever made in 2007. It’s little wonder, considering the stunning cinematography and use of darkness and perspective. Laughton, heavily influenced by the German Expressionists and D.W. Griffith, created an off-kilter dreamscape that heightens the film’s suspense. He knew better than to lull his audience into complacency, even during the nighttime river sequence that makes up the middle of the film or with the censor-skirting risque jokes fluttering throughout. And the image of Shelley Winters’s body trapped underwater, hair flowing in the current and slit throat in full view, chills with its frozen violence.

The film is available on DVD and Bluray from the Criterion Collection and streamable on Amazon Video (for free if you’re a Prime member).

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Comments (1)

Not only does it portray the child abuse in a emotionally-void starkness,but it’s also a great movie depicting the social conditioning of women in that era.

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