It’s a wonder how the sole fruit of Charles Laughton’s one-and-done directorial labors, The Night of the Hunter, came out as tastefully complex and perceptionally ripe as it did. Of course, I can see how some would confuse the film’s ostensible simplicity with genuine ordinariness thanks to its crisply decreed, good/evil moral mirroring and all. But Laughton’s film aims not to succeed as a didactic take on ethical dichotomy but as an intertwinement of its Americana-laden aesthetic and the shrewd simplicity of its 1930’s southern milieu: a image-drenched examination that rhymes puerile approaches to life's complexities with accordingly decorous, even ominous, compositions. Knowing this, we can see how Ms. Cooper’s (Lillian Gish)—who, affected by filial abandonment, now acts as a foster mother to wayward children—emblematic lamentation of, “It’s a hard world for little things,” speaks as specifically to mental callowness as it does youthful vulnerability. Laughton’s mostly dormant message seems to be an elicitation of sympathy for all-those susceptible, be it children or emotionally malleable adults.
But despite its at-times adult implications, The Night of the Hunter is foremost a parabolist fairytale—one that’s shaped by the innocence of its young principles and the vernal clarity with which they discern right from wrong. Of course, they understand not the multidimensionality inherent to human morality, as the central siblings John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) Harper are of but nine and four years of age. And yet, their green disposition to understanding the intricacies of life grants them the steadfast patriarchal loyalty that’s contingent to their storied survival. For at the film’s opening, their father Ben (Peter Graves), blood speckled and gun wielding, appoint his offspring guardians to his freshly pilfered $10,000 on the condition they look out for one another. But as Ben sits in jail – presumably weighing the two lives he claimed when acquiring the cash against those of his own children—he unwittingly advertises the existence of his cache to spiritual snake oil salesman, and cellmate, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Though jailed for car theft, Powell, who projects airs of piousness in order to procure the social ascendancy that any pastorly position accords, has actually been behind the murder of several young widows who, like Ben’s wife Lilla (Shelley Winters), have had a small fortune in stockpiled savings. And while his preying on the affectionately feeble is almost too superficially a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing trope, Laughton’s focus is more invested in evincing his work with a perceptional cognizance than in drawing living portraits of biblical idioms.
Still, it’s unsure whether or not Powell and his gravitas intonations of love and hate and fire and brimstone are in any way sincere or if they’re simply part of a practiced persona meant to subjugate local simpletons. I’d elect for the latter, as The Night of the Hunter seems most inspirited by the idea of ideological divides. Whereas Powell represents, despite being denominationally unaffiliated, all that’s evil with organized religion—the suppression of female sexual agency, gender-based hierarchies, and half-baked notions of humans’ fecund capacities—the aforementioned Ms. Cooper acts as his antithesis: she cares not about the prosaic dogma of religious governance and instead exhibits a love for any spirit in need. Sure, part of this is compensation for her being familially forsaken, but the genuineness with which she’s portrayed is indicative of her intentional purity. She is the “LOVE” scrolled across Powell’s knuckles just as he is the “HATE;” she the incorruptible whites of the film’s contrasting color palette and he the abysmal blacks. In this, Laughton has created a world of wholly actualized contradistinction with The Night of the Hunter. From its socially savvy characters to the others who are all-too trusting, the film plays on our intuitive bases through its exemplars of discernment and contextually apt compositions. It’s a work that allows us to see the world as both children and adults see it but, more importantly, uses its ingrained sense of perspectivsim and social location to elucidate that which makes us most assailable.
Though the opening of the film can be a bit misleading, as its pocketful of aerial establishment shots exhibit the kind of stability that one would expect from a Paul Greengrass film, the image quality quickly gives way to the high-contrast majesty of DP Stanley Cortez ‘s transfixing formalism – pitting lights against darks in a matter most apropos to the picture’s content. Marked by an excellently in tact grain structure, this Criterion release exceeds in the way it transmits textures and details while effectively evoking the picture’s foreboding quiddity. So strong is this representation that even some unintended visual minutia—like the wire used to move a prop owl—can be seen, though I find such an instance to be more charming than distracting. After all, this is a film from 1955 and that it can be depicted with such clarity is a tiny miracle in and of itself. Also, from Walter Schumann’s exaggerated scoring to Powell’s ominously calm warbling of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” this new linear PCM 1.0 soundtrack left me pleased as punch. Not only is dialogue conveyed with clarity and depth—even some dynamicism – but the track as a whole is incredibly clean: nary an instance of pops or cracks, hisses or hums encroached upon my audial enjoyment.
Overall, this is a Criterion output that again eclipses the work of a film’s antecedent issuers. Share this cinematic treasure and its quintessential shadowy spirit with those special to you this holiday season…at night, of course.