Internet was down most of the day, which among other things meant the movie I'd chosen for this week's Geezer Cinema was unavailable. So I fell back on an old favorite, The Night of the Hunter, which way back when was #31 on my Facebook Fifty Faves list. I'm only just now back online, so I'll cut and paste from my original comments.
The Night of the Hunter is a collaborative work; all films are, but I feel like in this case, people tend to focus on the fact that it’s the only film Charles Laughton ever directed, and thus assume the film’s idiosyncrasies are his alone. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel, James Agee, who wrote the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I won’t pretend to know exactly who did what. But I can describe the results. Visually, the movie is a cross of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionists. These influences come from silent film, and add to the feeling that Night of the Hunter is somehow timeless. (The presence of Lillian Gish doesn’t hurt, either). It has elements of the horror film; at times, Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is shot so that he resembles the monster in the Karloff versions of Frankenstein. It’s noirish, but noir as told through the eyes of children. It is, at times, pretty funny, which is unexpected. And Robert Mitchum’s performance is one of cinema’s greatest.
The movie also features several set pieces that are remarkable, and in many cases, unique. The children’s long trip down the river is the most obvious example, full of interesting choices by Laughton/Agee/Cortez/whoever. The image of Shelley Winters sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair flowing like it had belonged underwater all along, is unforgettable, and you’d like to congratulate Laughton (or whoever), except the novel’s author, Davis Grubb, submitted some early drawings to Laughton that include one which looks almost exactly like what we see on the screen, so send your congrats to Grubb for that one.
If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat, but the best time to see it for your first time is when you are young. You’ll be scared shitless, but you’ll never forget it. I suppose some parents would think this film to be exactly the kind of thing their kids should be protected from, but those parents are wrong. The Night of the Hunter works at the same elemental level as a good fairy tale. It is certainly better and more memorable than whatever tripe Disney is selling this year.
The Night of the Hunter was a notorious flop; no one went to see it, critical response was tepid, and it was soon forgotten as an inexpensive stylized piece by Laughton, who never directed again. But its status has increased over the years. It regularly appears on best-of lists, and is one of the films honored in the National Film Registry.
(#43 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.)