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The Night of the Hunter

     Here's prime movie trivia: what's the greatest film ever from a director who only made one film in a lifetime? Perhaps I'm forgetting something obvious (e-mail me an alternative choice), but my vote goes to The Night of the Hunter (1955), playing at the Brattle January 18-20 in a newly restored 35mm print. This wondrous cinematic tour-de-force (Martin Scorsese is among its vocal fans) represents the total behind-the-camera oeuvre of actor Charles Laughton (1892-1962), the pudgy, versatile star of such abiding screen classics as Les Miserables, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

     In fact, Laughton did more than brilliantly direct.

     The gorgeous, fanciful screenplay, credited to novelist-critic James Agee, was, according to Agee biographer, Lawrence Bergman, almost completely a Laughton rewrite, after the neophyte director became impatient with Agee's unshaped adaptation of the Davis Grubb novel.

     Why only one picture? I actually have a tentative answer to one of the great mysteries of American cinema. I once interviewed Norman Mailer, and asked about the Raoul Walsh-directed movie of his The Naked and the Dead, which Mailer loathed. He told me, "Charles Laughton was to do it, and we spent a week together in New York at Laughton's St. Moritz Hotel penthouse. He had a great dedication to the novel, and he was coming off. . . The Night of the Hunter, which he thought would do extraordinarily. It didn't. Laughton was not a young man, and it took everything out of him. He never directed again."

     It's easy to see how the movie bombed the first time: here in the cherry-pie Eisenhower years comes this decadent, ghoulish story of a fruitcake villain, a serial-killer of his newlywed wives, who, between murders, has --blasphemy!-- intimate on-screen talks with God. He thoroughly believes the Lord walks at his side, this bogey-man, bogus pastor, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who shivers in disgust about women's carnality before he cuts female throats. We get to see one tragic courtship from beginning to a quick end, when he goes after Willa (Shelley Winters), a vulnerable young widow with two kids and some hidden money, marries her and then quickly sends her to the bottom of a river. A poor, gone Ophelia, there she floats among the flotsam.

     Can a masterly film be campy in places? You'd expect from Mitchum a laid-back, sleepy-eyed satan, not the double-barreled, over-the-top, grand guignol performance which dominates the film: there are moments when his eye-rolling lunatic act feels like a male audition for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

     But Mitchum's acting is consistent with Laughton's stylized conception: from Hollywood in the 1950s comes the most totally expressionistic film since the 1920s and German Expressionism. Mitchum's juicy, exaggerated way is the showy, demonstrative, expressionist style. Several of the angular, paranoia-enducing sets hit with triangular splotches of harsh light (the honeymoon-murder locale, for example) could come out of the original The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari.

     Laughton collaborated here with one the finest of cinematographers: Stanley Cortez, honored for his deep-focus photography for The Magnificent Ambersons. Some of most famous, adult fairy-tale shots in Night of the Hunter also are deep-focus: for instance, the poetically pantheist sequence in which cobwebs, frogs, shivery rabbits dominate the front of the frames, while far off in the background (but in sharp focus) two diminutive orphaned children (Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce) sail down the river to escape the demented preacher man.

     This scene feels likes Disney's Snow White, when the heroine flees into the forest from the evil queen, before she meets her protectors, the Seven Dwarfs. In The Night of the Hunter, the protector is a godmother elderly lady, Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), who takes in lost children and they become part of her "coop";they strut through the streets in a row like little peppers. Miss Cooper is played by the one-time D.W. Griffith silent star (The Birth of a Nation, Orphans of the Storm, etc.), and her appearance in The Night of the Hunter is total enchantment. Posited as the antidote to Powell's devilish religiosity, Miss Cooper is pure Christian charity, and the scene in which she and that minister of hate clash with dueling hymns to God is a thrilling manichean battle of wills.

     The Night of the Hunter opens with Miss Cooper suspended in the heavens among stars warning of "False Prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing." Lillian in the sky with diamonds! Awesome!

(Boston Phoenix, January, 2002)

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