Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton
Famed British actor Charles Laughton (Mutiny on The Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) made his directorial debut with 1955’s Night of the Hunter. Film audiences of 1955 undoubtedly found Laughton’s expressionist vision impossible to decipher, and the film was a commercial and critical failure. Laughton, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, was so distraught over the reaction to his film that he vowed never to direct again. Clearly, Night of the Hunter was ahead of its time, and it took a few decades before moviegoers could appreciate all that Laughton accomplished with his film.
The concept of expressionism has to do with taking reality and reshaping it into a vision that becomes something not quite natural. The world as we know it is represented, but the effect of expressionism has our perception of that world tweaked in subtle, and no so subtle, ways.
Laughton opens the film with a darkened sky filled with stars. Suddenly the frame is filled with a woman (actress Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper) as she reads a bible story. Smiling children surrounds Rachel, as if they all were angels observing the world from above. And in the first few minutes of the film, we learn what expressionism is in that scene.
Another expressionist vision Laughton crafts introduces us to the character of Harry “Preacher” Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell is driving, and the frame is filled of him and his vehicle (stolen) as he glances up to heaven and “prays” to his god, complaining about his mission in life, which is to kill wealthy widows and steal their money.
As Powell drives, Laughton shifts the point of view to the back seat of the car, so we are observing the back of Powell’s head; this terrific shot creates the feeling that we are driving in the car with Powell.
The effects of expressionism on the viewer are numerous. At times we feel like silent observers from above. In several scenes Laughton provides a god’s eye view of the world below, and in brilliant tracking shots, we soar through the air to the village below. Other times we seem to be looking through the eyes of young John Harper (Billy Chapin), a little boy with baby sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) in tow. Powell will figure largely in their life soon, when he marries their widowed mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa is a widow because her husband Ben had been convicted of killing two people in a bank robbery and sentenced to death – but before he goes to prison, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) instructs John to hide the money that had been stolen from the bank. When Harper and Powell end up cellmates at prison, Powell learns of the $10,000 Harper had stolen from the bank, which will provide Powell with another widow to kill.