Night of the Hunter Charles Laughton (USA; 1955;) Robert Mitchum; Shelley Winters; Lillian Gish
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 26 Nov 2022; ticket £7
This is the second time I have seen ‘Night of the Hunter. My first viewing was at home on dvd. My impressions of the film were that it was rather dull, with a simplistic laboured story line. My impressions were negative: maybe it was something I’d eaten earlier in the day or maybe it reflected how I had seen the film. Because when I saw it again on a big screen I found that Laughton’s film was imbued with a magical quality that held me fast from first to last frame. It is a truly disciplined ensemble piece of film making. The acting – Mitchum and Gish in particular, the luminous black and white cinematography, the set designs and the vision of Laughton – all come togather to make a film that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Under Laughton’s direction ‘Night of the Hunter’ is a fairy-tale transposed into filmic form. It’s a Hansel and Gretal type story, with a wicked Uncle instead of a witch, ending with the triumph of a good fairy who possesses the psychic resources to defeat evil. The setting is West Virginia and much of the action takes place alongside of or on the Ohio River. The cinematography of Stanley Cortez renders the river as a mythic waterway. When on the boat fleeing Harry Powell, the children don’t row paddle or punt, they drift down stream trusting to the flow of the current as if in the thrall of some Arthurian legend that will deliver them into the embrace of safety and love.
The acting style that Laughten developed with his cast to project the story onto the screen is at one with the film’s fairy-tale patina. Mitchum in particular, central to the story as the force of evil, delivers his role to perfection. He carries off the rogue preacher gig with a line delivery mode that is slightly heightened whilst at the same time engenders an feeling of distance, not inhabiting the role but rather self consciously expressing its formulaic utterances, understanding that as this is fairy-tale land, the formulaic is apposite but delivery is critical. Mitchum’s face and body language all emphasise his ‘evil preacher’ persona’ moving from detachment to engagement with a series of effortless gestural devices. Lillian Gish and the rest of the cast all make the same accomodations to the acting ethos of ‘Night of the Hunter’ enabling them to play out their fairy-tale roles. But it is Mitchum’s part as the resident ‘baddie’ that is the critical performance hinge upon which the movie hangs.
My enjoyment of Laughton’s movie, seeing it for the second time on a big screen, indicates the importance of scale it viewing a movie. Most of the films made prior to 1990 ‘s were made to be seen on the big screen. That was where the return to investment was made and directors and producers spent considerable time looking at the material in the viewing theatre before finalising the cut on the large screen. Films were made to be seen under conditions where the image filled out the audience’s field of vision. This consideration of scale effected the types of shots used – the balance between close-ups and other types of shots – and also shot duration, in particular but not only in relation to wide shots.
On a big screen wide shots can be held for considerable length of time. The eye has so much to look at and to process as it scans the frame, probes into recesses of the image evaluating what is happening. On small screens, the wide shot cannot sustain itself; there is not sufficient information in the image to hold the eye’s interest: on small screens every shot has the same value that equates to the information that can be extracted from it. The eye having taken in the limited information, exhausted interest demands to move on to another image. When films are edited for the small screen the constant demand is for the image to keep moving. Move move move move streadycam steadycam steadycam, zoom zoom zoom. We demand constant agitation, shoot on the run or the eye dries up in boredom. This is the way adverts, TV serials and films are now shot. An attention span that where material is watched on a phone exhausts a shot in 3 seconds. Cut cut cut cut cut…Actually although wide shots are particularly difficult to appreciate and hold attention on small screens, big close ups have a similar problems. Seeing big close-ups on a cinema screen that are held for long duration such as used by Bergman in ‘Persona‘, is a wonder of affect. Writ large the eye is invited into the huge image searching for signs, invited by the huge faciality to read into the shot. Reduced in size these large very big close-ups are just another 3 second image, a staging post to the next shot and the next and the next, as all we have left in film is one shot after another and the triumph of the banality of narrative.
Cinema in slow-mo celebrating its own death.
‘Night of the Hunter’ is a marvel of old Cinema. A film that only really works when writ big upon the screen. The film itself was a commercial failure, a flop. Hollywood had no idea how to market a film that existed well outside the bounds of any commercial genre, a movie that didn’t fit any conventional form. Laughton discouraged never attempted to direct again, and Cinema lost an unusual talent, a man with a distinct perception of how to make his films.