Light and dark. The hunted and the hunter. Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) is a beautiful and deeply disturbing film of striking contrasts. A cinematic visual wonder, this film is rich in symbolism. Masterfully cast with outstanding performances, beautifully directed, and filmed in sumptuous cinema photography, this unforgettable story of innocence and evil serves more as an exquisite piece of art.
On their wedding night, Willa and her new groom are alone. She is truly happy as she gets ready for her bridal bed. As she steps into the bedroom, the tone changes abruptly. The preacher scolds her immediately for making the absurd assumption they would consummate their marriage. He angrily chastises her for being so sinful as to presume her role is anything other than mother to her current children, instead of lustfully seducing him to create more. The wolf is shedding his woolen disguise now. And Willa is left confused, ashamed and feeling very "unclean."
As he promised, and just like the first time John saw the preacher under the lamp post, the wolf creeps in closer to the edge of the flock that night. He stands guard just outside the fence and sings his hymnal. We see the dark silhouette of Ms. Cooper on the porch in the foreground while the preacher is shown in light in the background. In an interestingly queer moment, she joins him in singing this hymnal, holding her rifle. The preacher disappears as Ms. Cooper is distracted as Ruby approaches holding a candle. She tells Ruby to get the others. She looks outside as an owl swoops down to kill a bunny outside and says, "It's a hard world for little things."
Very surprising that director Charles Laughton chose this story with such a strong message on the merits and goodness of children. It was well known that he hated children. It's been said he had particular frustration and little patience in dealing with the young actress who played Pearl. Brit-born Laughton was an award-winning and popular actor of stage and screen, a producer, a drama teacher and for his first and last time with this film, a director. Although he stated his reasoning for never directing again was due to Laughton's preference for directing plays over film, many believe the truth had more to do with his bitter disappointment in this film's poor commercial success. Despite the less than flattering response from critics after this release, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER has endured as a favorite of classic film fans. Lead Robert Mitchum claimed Charles Laughton to be his favorite director. How bittersweet considering it was his only film.
This film is packed full in symbolism and vibrant contrasts. It takes on the subject of religion; showing the potential of both goodness and strength but also of hypocrisy of it's morbidly dark side. For such a strong story and cast, filmed in such an artistic way (thanks also to talented cinematographer Stanley Cortez), perhaps it is the controversial debate of religion that caused this film's lackluster of success. My belief is that a 1955 audience was not ready for this artistic masterpiece that dared to show beauty and dark terror so closely together. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was simply ahead of it's time.
*This blog entry is part of the GISH SISTERS BLOGATHON, hosted by Movies Silently (@MoviesSilently) and The Motion Pictures (@TMPLindsey). Check out all the great blogging 'dish on Gish' Sept. 7-9th.