Simon Callow’s preface to the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor notes with some sadness that the performer is rapidly being forgotten by a generation of viewers who perhaps due to increasingly infrequent TV screenings have yet to see and appreciate the magnificence of his craft. Even amongst acting professionals Laughton’s name does not elicit any significant levels of recognition in anyone under 40.
Whilst his multitude of screen performances await reappraisal, Laughton’s sole stab at directing has undergone a complete critical rehabilitation since its release. Treated with scorn by pundits and ignored by audiences, The Night of the Hunter’s stature has steadily grown and this once derided movie is now regarded by cinephiles as being one of the finest examples of Film Noir. Proof that The Night of the Hunter is now celebrated by the very elite which once rejected it was offered in 1992 when the film was selected by the United Sates Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The re-evaluation, particularly with regards cinematography, is somewhat ironic as for decades the film has been presented in an alternate aspect ratio which removed picture information and neutered a carefully constructed cinematic canvas. For the first time since its original release viewers now have the opportunity to view the movie as it was intended thanks to the release on Blu-ray of a restored edition sourced from 35mm film elements.
In 1954 Charles Laughton enjoyed his most significant Broadway success directing Henry Ford in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Recognizing his talent and keen for Laughton to forge a career away from acting producer Paul Gregory began actively seeking out projects which might be suitable for a debut behind the camera lens; ‘I wanted to bring Charlie into focus as a top director and have him quit performing; the performances were what was killing him; he needed to find something where he could direct one or two things a year and make all the money he needed. That was the goal I had for Charles. With me producing and him directing, and when he didn’t direct, we’d be co-producers.’ No doubt planning a multimedia empire which would conquer stage and screen, Gregory optioned a best selling novel by Davis Grubb about a murderous preacher. Inspired by the true life story of serial killer Harry Powers who placed adverts in local newspapers fully intending to slay anyone who replied and steal their money, Grubb’s novel was short-listed for the National Book Award.
Armed with development funds from United Artists, Gregory and Laughton recruited James Agee to translate Grubb’s prose into a story that would electrify movie audiences. An influential film critic and author of the screenplay for The African Queen, Agee had descended into a life dominated by alcohol abuse and would be dead within a year of the film’s release. For decades Agee’s authorship of the script has been contested, apocryphal tales have circulated of an elaborate but unfilmable draft which was rejected and replaced by one written in haste by Laughton. Agee’s contribution was further cast into doubt by unverifiable accounts of him being excluded from the set due to drunken behaviour. Additional confusion was caused by the publication of the filmed version in James Agee’s Five Film Scripts. More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the
More recent scholarship has substantially restored Agee’s reputation proving beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the author of the screenplay. In 2004 the long lost first draft of Agee’s script was discovered and whilst being over-length it is reported to contain each scene present in the finished film and carefully delineates the precise division of acts. Surviving production memorandums suggest a far more cordial relationship with Laughton than has been previously hinted at and a greater presence by Agee throughout the film’s production. Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of
Just as Agee’s contribution has been erroneously discredited and then restored, Charles Laughton’s claim to be the sole director became a contentious issue due to statements from Robert Mitchum alleging that he was responsible for several key sequences. Arrow Films’ Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter accords Laughton his rightful status as the film’s sole director and in doing so shatters many falsehoods which have been reported in biographies and articles over the years.
Made towards the end of the Film Noir movement, The Night of the Hunter is a dark and twisted nightmarish view of small-town America shot through with black humour and sexual innuendo. Undeniably influenced by German Expressionism in terms of framing and the use of light, shade, and distorted perspectives alongside various techniques accrued during the course of Laughton’s experiences directing for the stage .
During pre-production Laughton (alongside Welles alumni Stanley Cortez) rejected excessive theorizing about stylistic approaches and instead screened whatever D.W.Griffiths films were available. In seeking to learn how to the rules of film grammar through studying a pioneer’s work Laughton was echoing the behaviour of Orson Welles who alongside cinematographer Gregg Toland watched John Ford’s Stagecoach a reported forty times during production of Citizen Kane. The extent to which this parallel with Welles’ own research methodology is coincidental or deliberate is unrecorded.
Set within depression era America, the film combines the tropes of Southern Gothic with themes present in the more grotesque Brothers Grimm folk tales. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested by police following a bank robbery in which two people were slain. Wishing for his children to avoid the levels of deprivation that were becoming increasingly commonplace during the 1930s Ben conceals the money with daughter Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) ragdoll making her and brother John (Billy Chapin) vow to never reveal the location of the stolen stash. Whilst in prison awaiting execution Ben shares his cell with confidence artist Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is eager to get his hand on the on the cash. Upon release from the penitentiary Powell inveigles widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters) into marrying him and begins a campaign of psychological and physical torture in order to find the proceeds from Ben’s robbery.
During initial conversations about the part Laughton told Mitchum ‘this character I want you to play is a diabolical shit.’ Understanding what the director wanted from him Mitchum gave what may be his most intense screen performance, constantly diabolical and ghoulish whilst a lesser actor might have given a more arch reading of the part.
Told from the perspective of two children Ben and Pearl, The Night of the Hunter‘s macabre flourishes recall Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Paul Wegener alonside the aforementioned D.W. Griffiths. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had already experienced greatness working alongside Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and would say of his time with Laughton; ‘… the most exciting experience I’ve had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter … every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can’t be described. Of the directors I’ve worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.’
Dejected by the critical and commercial disappointment Laughton never again directed a feature film leaving us this solitary glimpse into the promise of genius which might have transformed the cinematic landscape. A deeply personal work informed by the director’s love of cinema (he had a teenage crush on Lillian Gish who appears in this film).
Arrow Films’ package includes an archive interview with Stanley Cortez and a feature length documentary, Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter” which is compiled from rushes discovered by Robert Gitt. In several interviews Mitchum diminished Laughton’s contribution, claiming that the director did not get along with the child actors and handed these sequences over to other personnel but thanks to this bonus feature we can see that the reverse is in fact a more accurate account; great care was taken to coax honest performances from the children and throughout the director is in total control of the proceedings.