“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.
Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.
Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.
Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.
You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.