People often say, “Beware of false prophets.” It’s an important life lesson, and Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter (his only credited directorial effort) perfectly exemplifies this warning. Another invaluable rule for folks to heed is, “Beware of false advertising.” That’s right film fans, yours truly is having a really difficult time with this one. Over fifty years after its release, the nightmarish tale of Robert Mitchum’s preacher assailing young children is lauded by critics across the board as one of the finest films ever made. Even Roger Ebert (one of my heroes who, even when I disagree with him, often gives me pause) has exclaimed, “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up…” Well, sometimes part of maintaining one’s integrity is having the heart to disagree with popular opinions and standing defiant against individuals with a much more esteemed reputation than oneself. It’s with this in mind that I have to state that I “pretty much” disagree with The Night of the Hunter’s widely regarded superior reputation.
During its initial run, the film was panned by critics and audiences alike, and it’s only with the passing of time that it has taken on a perception of grandeur. Having never seen the film for whatever reason, I recently decided to take a look at it to see what all the hoopla is really about, and I maintain that first instincts are usually the right ones. However, I should also point out that TNOTH is not a worthless film. That’s not what I’m getting at. It certainly has its share of positive attributes. The movie is incredibly influential in terms of style and tone, and for good reason. The true hero from this production in my eyes is actually cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who’s responsible for shooting one of the more beautiful black-and-white films I’ve ever seen. His use of shadows and angles is downright brilliant, and Cortez succeeded in creating a surreal and foreboding atmosphere that I don’t think was prominent in ‘50s filmmaking. This is, of course, no secret as touches of Cortez’s work here can be seen in countless horror films since. I must additionally applaud TNOTH at least for its basic premise. Even in modern times, the subject of religion is a touchy one, so creating a villain who uses God as a justification for his evil doings in 1950’s cinema is daring to say the least. They say that even the Devil himself can quote scripture to suit his own purposes, and that’s exactly what Mitchum does in this film. The only problem is that when all is said and done in the case of this little celluloid program, it all rings a little hollow.
OK, so I guess I should get to what my gripes are. First, let me set everything up: Mitchum is the aforementioned false preacher in Depression-era West Virginia who happens upon Peter Graves in prison just days before Graves is to be put to death for killing two people during a bank heist where he made away with $10,000. Graves hid the money and only told his two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) its location and swore them never to divulge its location. Mitchum picks up that the children may have a clue to the cash’s whereabouts, so after he gets out of jail he tracks down Graves’ widow (Shelley Winters) and marries her with the hopes that he can get the kids to spill. Chapin wisely doesn’t trust Mitchum and soon he and his little sister are on the run. It’s a fairly simple tale, and often simplicity is the best policy. I’m a big supporter of minimalism… but not in this case. Being that TNOTH is such an “influential” product, I don’t feel that the movie went far enough. Sure, the audience is made well aware that Mitchum’s character is a remorseless killer and we even see it one instance. We also know that underneath his tough exterior, the character is really only a spineless coward who can only prey upon defenseless women and children. However, aside from Mitchum’s gruff voice I just didn’t see enough from him to warrant his portrayal as one for the ages in terms of being one of the most imposing and impinging film bad guys. This is especially evidenced by the way he’s dealt with (and by whom) at the end of the film. A movie such as this can only be as successful as its villain, and while every critic since time immemorial has hailed Mitchum’s performance as completely menacing, I found it to be a bit cartoonish. Yes, I know it was the 1950s and times were different and various timely mannerisms in film need to be forgiven to fully appreciate their worth, but I’m sorry, I simply wasn’t buying it. After all, the preacher may have said some nasty things, but on screen, he never actually DID anything to the children. Maybe I’ve just become jaded in the modern age of blood, violence and curse words in film, but am I really supposed to be afraid of a man who uses the word “wretch”? Furthermore, I know that the tattoos of L-O-V-E across the knuckles of one of Mitchum’s hands, and H-A-T-E across the other are together an iconic film image. I also realize that when this film was made only criminals and sailors had tattoos, but c’mon. Let’s not be lazy and use this little device as a symbol of evil instead of relying on good old-fashioned character development.
It would be wrong not to briefly discuss director Laughton’s role in all of this in order to support my argument. Laughton, a successful actor, probably made TNOTH his only effort in the director’s chair for a legitimate reason. That tidbit should tell everyone something in and of itself. I really don’t think he developed a taste for being an auteur. I say this because it’s believed that Laughton had to severely rework the script adapted from Davis Grubb’s novel by screenwriter James Agee, as Agee had devolved into the throes of alcoholism. This is at least according to Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography. (Wow, I would love to see what a mess the original screenplay must have been!) It’s also widely known that Laughton couldn’t stand the two children (Chapin and Bruce) in the film (who were really the main focus), and left much of their care to Mitchum. So, let me get this straight: There’s a first-time director who in addition to despising the original script, also didn’t like two of his lead actors… It all sounds like a recipe for success to me. In Laughton’s defense, he probably did about as good a job as possible, but I still found the script to be pervasive with simplicities that were a little too quaint for a feature with such a serious plot.
There’s something else I want to get off my chest. Walter Schumann’s original score is downright haunting, and one of the most effective aspects of Mitchum’s character is when he constantly and calmly makes his presence known by singing the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. However, the film’s score gets completely derailed by the decision to dub in an adult voice for a song sung by Bruce. This was often common procedure back in the day, especially in musicals where the lead players couldn’t sing. That practice is somewhat forgivable, but it’s so obvious and disconcerting to hear the angelic voice of a grown woman coming out of the mouth of a girl no older than seven years that it jarred me right out of the narrative. Oh well, at least Lillian Gish didn’t sing… oh wait a minute, yes she did. Don’t even get me started on her. It’s her speech at the end of the film that probably bothered me the most. When the story eventually degenerates into an oversimplified allegory about how children can endure tough times, Gish states something to this effect and asks God to protect them because they “abide.” Well, I also abide, and I give The Night of the Hunter two and a half stars out of five, and even that’s a bit of a gift. Everyone’s heart was in the right place, but the movie is a cop-out all the way around. It’s funny how the passing of time can inspire romantic notions even if they’re undeserved, and that anything old must be good. Films like this are like old lovers who cheated. It’s easy to remember the good times, but it’s not a good idea to see them again.