The Night of the Hunter is back in cinemas, including an extended run at BFI Southbank, from 17 January.
Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is a major four-month film season at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
Favourite films can be difficult to write about. I’m not referring to the films I think are among the greatest ever made. I mean the ones which always strike a very particular emotional chord whenever I watch them; films which are the cinematic equivalent of a favourite old album first heard in one’s youth. In a way, these films are somehow beyond criticism – one simply accepts their flaws and weaknesses at the same time as one derives endless pleasure from their virtues and strengths.
So Citizen Kane (1941), La Règle du jeu (1939), Tokyo Story (1953) and My Night with Maud (1969) – which for me are not only personal favourites but among the strongest contenders for the plaudit of ‘greatest film ever made’ – are movies I watch without ever having to make any allowances for them. But favourites like It’s a Gift (1934), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Une chambre en ville (1982) or The Big Lebowski (1998)… While I’d certainly argue that these are all great films, there’s something about each of them which falls just short of perfection – whether it’s Cary Grant’s ludicrous sombrero and up-to-his-armpits trousers in Only Angels Have Wings, or the overly solemn concept of honour among criminals in Le Deuxième Souffle. But whatever their shortcomings, all these films are among my all-time favourites; I love them unconditionally, and can watch them time and again without growing tired of them.
Such a film, I think, is The Night of the Hunter (1955), sadly the only film which Charles Laughton managed to complete as a director. He did intend to make a film of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, but the box-office failure of The Night of the Hunter put paid to those plans.
Based on a little-known but weird and rather wonderful novel by Davis Grubb, Laughton’s film is one of the strangest and finest films to have come out of Hollywood in the 1950s. Set in small West Virginia towns on the Ohio River during the Great Depression, it tells of a murderous rogue preacher (Robert Mitchum) who learns of a fortune stolen from a bank by a man he encounters in prison. Upon his release, he sets out to seduce the hanged man’s widow, but he hasn’t reckoned on the resistance of her children, especially her son. So begins a battle – between, as the preacher’s tattooed knuckles would have it, love and hate – to the death.
What makes the film so remarkable is the way Laughton tells the story. Together with Stanley Cortez, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, Laughton created, in razor-sharp black and white, a bizarre but brilliant mix of expressionism and American pastoral, complete with some archaic devices reminiscent of pioneer D.W. Griffith (notably several iris shots) and a few moments of surrealism tossed in for good measure.
The result has the unsettling and often genuinely frightening atmosphere of a nightmare; indeed, on one recent viewing, I was struck by how many images reminded me of paintings by René Magritte like ‘The Empire of Lights’, ‘God’s Salon’ or ‘Not to Be Reproduced’. There is a real sense of familiar things not quite being as they appear, and of a suffocating darkness about to envelop the world – a darkness emanating from the psychopathic soul of preacher Harry Powell.
Why do I not include this extraordinary film among the very greatest achievements in cinema? I think it probably has something to do with Mitchum’s rightly acclaimed performance, which is undoubtedly remarkable and mostly in keeping, in its crazed intensity, with the film as a whole. It’s also a very far cry from the quiet naturalism which informs his finest performance, in Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952).
Mitchum’s Harry Powell is appropriately Janus-faced and manic, but there are also a few scattered moments which border on broad comedy. I’m unsure whether those moments are attributable to the star, the director or both, and we’re only talking about a tonal discrepancy for just a few seconds in an utterly marvellous film, but for me those seconds mean that The Night of the Hunter doesn’t quite belong in the very top drawer.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t knock me flat every time I watch it – which has probably been about once every two or three years for the last four decades. In particular, there’s the justly famous scene of the children’s nighttime riverboat ride (which, if memory serves, was the inspiration for an early song by Brian Eno). However much I may try to resist, as soon as it starts it always – absolutely always – brings a tear to my eye. Not because it’s sad, but because it moves me deeply to know that, even in Hollywood, something so wondrously beautiful could have been created for posterity through the magic of cinema.