In the only film directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter, we have an example of the danger of applying a template approach to establishing a picture as a film noir. Expressionist lighting and criminality – tick. But these elements alone do not a noir make. The Night of the Hunter is a gothic tale of good versus evil: there is no ambivalence nor an inversion of traditional values. Good triumphs over evil and the story ends.
This is not to say Night of the Hunter is not a great film- it assuredly is. A tale about a psychotic and murderous Southern preacher terrorising two children who know the whereabouts of a loot of stolen money is not without flaws, but great nonetheless. The compelling screenplay, first class acting, atmospheric cinematography, and an enthralling stylised mise-en-scene from a first-time director make it great.
The editing is not fluid however, and the narrative flow suffers. Whether this is due to cuts made after completion of the preview version is uncertain. In a new book on the making of the movie, author Jeffrey Coachman says Laughton re-interpreted James Agee’s script, which itself was based on the first novel of Davis Grubb. The original Agee script surfaced in 2003, and out-takes still exist and have been viewed by Couchman. Also certain studio scenes clash jarringly with on-location shots. Scenes in a small town near the end of the film are so obviously set-bound, that the drama takes on a theatrical tone which weakens the ‘reality’ of the story. The ending steers perilously close to sentimentality, but is saved by the luminous acting of Lillian Gish.
Other weaknesses relate to a certain moral relativism. The opening scene that establishes the story arc is not as strong as it should be – a weak performance by Peter Graves as the father on-the-run with the loot is redeemed only by the young actors playing his children. The father is caught and hanged, after sharing his cell with the evil preacher played superbly by Robert Mitchum, who learns that the loot has been hidden but not where. In the cell, disturbingly, the father justifies his crime, and presumably the killing of two people during the robbery, by saying he did it so his kids would not suffer during the hard times of the depression. After the hanging, the hangman is shown going home to his wife and young children and his remorse is clearly established. Yet at the end he is shown gleefully anticipating the hanging of another man – the preacher. An elderly married couple who are friends of Grave’s widow and portrayed as the salt of the earth in their generosity and concern for the woman alone struggling to raise her two children, at the end of the movie are transformed into unhinged rabble-rousers screaming for revenge and leading a lynch mob.
These weaknesses aside, there are stunningly elegiac scenes as the story unfolds. The most compelling is of the murdered widow still sitting upright in a car submerged in a river.