November 12, 2010


The Greatest One-Off in Movie History: The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's only film, influenced Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers. (Elbert Ventura, Nov. 9, 2010, Slate)

Shot by the great Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer on Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter is a magic lantern of a movie. Cortez remarked that only two directors he worked with understood light, "that incredible thing that can't be described": Welles and Laughton. Refracted through the prism of a child's nightmare, it is a movie of skewed perspectives and shadow play. Preacher's entry into John and Pearl's lives, one of the great first encounters in movies, is a baroque coup:

John's nightmare will only get worse. As Preacher insinuates himself in the children's hometown, only the boy intuits the evil within. Pauline Kael called it "one of the most frightening films ever made," but its scares come not from Grand Guignol horrors or gotcha moments. There's something deeply primal at work here: The subterranean charge coursing through the picture is our childhood terror of having no grown-up left to turn to. The fatherless John sees his mother meet and fall in love with the Preacher; the townspeople are no less captivated by the charismatic madman. In perhaps the movie's most famous scene, the Preacher tells a parable that also gestures toward Laughton's grand theme:

In memory, The Night of the Hunter stands out as a chase movie—which is strange because much of it actually stays put. But there's a good reason for that trick of the mind. At the movie's heart is a pursuit, as the children, abandoned by adults, escape from the Preacher and drift downriver on a skiff. Evoking biblical legend and American lore, the river sequence is one of the greatest in all of cinema:

At the end of that ride is refuge. Like Moses rescued from the riverbank, John and Pearl are found by an old lady, Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), a Mother Goose figure who becomes their guardian. (Further evidence of Laughton's film sense: when she first brings the children home, Mrs. Cooper walks briskly across the screen from right to left, the camera tracking along with her—in emphatic opposition to the left-to-right movement of the chase.)

It is with the appearance of Gish that Laughton's movie, already remarkable, deepens into a grander statement of formal and thematic purpose. Laughton considered Gish the lynchpin of the entire project. For Laughton, the way to get at truths was through the simplest forms: fairy tales, Bible stories, and, of course, the silent pictures. D.W. Griffith's greatest star, Gish was for Laughton a living, breathing avatar of the elemental power of the movies.

But Gish embodies more than that. Shimmering with righteousness and good American sense, her pious Mrs. Cooper is the crucial counterweight to Mitchum's Preacher. Her presence broadens the movie's scope, helping it rise above a mere critique of American parochial fundamentalism to an encompassing portrait of humanity's complexity. Just as LOVE and HATE both reside in the soul of man, so do faith and religion serve a corrosive purpose but an ennobling one as well. If Preacher (and, to a lesser extent, the sanctimonious townsfolk who can't spot iniquity when it's staring them in the face) represents blinkered zealotry and certainty, Mrs. Cooper redeems the purpose of faith, emblematizing Christian compassion and strength. Religion as double-edged sword reaches its expressive apogee in a climactic scene, with Preacher laying siege to Mrs. Cooper's house, singing a gospel hymn—only to be joined in song by the old lady, singing her own words of devotion...

...includes Youtube bits of the referenced scenes.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2010 5:48 PM
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