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Book Review: 'The Night of the Hunter,' by Jeffrey Couchman

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, February 26, 2009

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

A Biography of a Film

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By Jeffrey Couchman

Northwestern Univ. 284 pp. Paperback, $24.95

"I see you're looking at my hands," says the Rev. Harry Powell. The black-suited preacher -- played by cobra-lidded Robert Mitchum -- sits on a stool in an ice cream parlor in Depression-era West Virginia. His knuckles are tattooed with the words LOVE and HATE, and in just a moment the hypocritical, sexually repressed, homicidal maniac will mime the never-ending battle between good and evil, between Mr. Right Hand and Mr. Left Hand. No one ever forgets the Rev. Harry Powell's hands, or the switchblade that he carries in his pocket, or the haunting movie through which he slithers like a serpent: "The Night of the Hunter."

The only film ever directed by the great character actor Charles Laughton, "The Night of the Hunter" failed miserably when it opened in 1955. But since then it has come to be recognized as one of American cinema's greatest masterpieces. Shot in glorious black and white, this poetic, highly stylized movie is half-Gothic nightmare, half-morality play, a pastoral film noir set along the banks of the serene Ohio River. Cahiers du Cinéma ranks it as the second most beautiful film of all time (after "Citizen Kane" and just above "The Rules of the Game"). In this enthralling "biography," Jeffrey Couchman traces how the cinematic classic came to be made.

Laughton had long been eager to try his hand at directing when his business manager, Paul Gregory, brought him the advance galleys of Davis Grubb's first novel. Laugton read "The Night of the Hunter" in a New York hotel room, and, according to Gregory, suddenly came "wallowing down the hallway in his nightshirt, waving this book, saying, 'We've found it, We've found it!' " They bought the rights for $75,000 even before Grubb's novel was published. But they had chosen well: "The Night of the Hunter" stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for four months. The plot of both the novel and movie is this: The desperate Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two guards, but before he is captured leaves the loot -- $10,000 -- in the safekeeping of his two children, 9-year-old John and 4-year-old Pearl. He makes them promise never to tell anyone where the money is hidden, not even their mother. While waiting to be hanged, Harper occupies a cell with the preacher Harry Powell, who has been sentenced for 30 days for driving a stolen car. Harper refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the money to his wheedling cellmate, but before long Powell -- who we know preys on lonely widows -- is heading straight for Cresap's Landing. There he charms the townsfolk and, more important, the sexually hungry Willa Harper (marvelously played by Shelley Winters).

Only young John refuses Powell's unctuous blandishments, but one night he accidentally reveals that he and Pearl know where the stolen money is hidden. As a result, the two children must flee their murderous stepfather, setting off in a skiff to float down the Ohio River, hoping to find a place of refuge. In one particularly eerie scene, the two runaways fall asleep in a hayloft -- until John suddenly hears the barking of dogs, then Mitchum's honeyed voice singing his signature hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." A horse and rider slowly amble across the horizon, and the amazed and appalled John cries out, "Don't he ever sleep?" The Devil, we know, never does.

Eventually, the children do find a protector in the kindly Miz Rachel Cooper -- played by Lillian Gish -- and the confrontation between good and evil comes to a final struggle at night in a lonely farmhouse.

As Couchman repeatedly emphasizes, Laughton aimed to be as faithful to the novel as possible. He even asked Grubb to make drawings of some of his key scenes: a burlesque hall with its flouncing stripper, the preacher's looming shadow on a bedroom wall, the look of a woman's corpse and wafting hair under water. When Grubb chose not to work on the actual shooting script, Laughton hired James Agee instead. Not only an esteemed film critic but also the scriptwriter for John Huston's "The African Queen," Agee had authored his own sui generis masterpiece of Americana, a sustained prose poem about poor Southern families that, with photographs by Walker Evans, became "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

Long thought to be lost, Agee's text for "The Night of the Hunter" turned up in 2003, and Couchman shows that more of it was used in the film than has been generally suspected. Yet even though Agee was given a screen credit, his work as a whole was rejected as overelaborate, and Laughton produced his own fast-moving, stripped-down story. Because some outtakes from the production survive, these also allow us to hear the director patiently explaining to his principals exactly how he wants them to play each scene.

To achieve the dreamlike, stylized look he was after, Laughton took his inspiration from all the darker schools of filmmaking, borrowing from German expressionist shockers (e.g., shadowy streets and narrow hallways shot from unsettling angles), from Universal's 1930s horror movies about relentless monsters ("Dracula," "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein") and from D.W. Griffith's early silents, especially such realistic melodramas as "Broken Blossoms" (starring a young Lillian Gish). Most important of all, Laughton hired Walter Schumann to compose the film's atmospheric music and Stanley Cortez, known for his high contrast blacks and whites, to be his cinematographer. Cortez once flatly stated that of the directors he worked with, only two understood light: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton. Certainly, it is the quality of the light that makes each scene of the movie so striking: the sharp clarity of the open-air picnic, the hideous chiaroscuro of a torch-lit revival meeting, the swirling mist that gathers outside the ice cream parlor when the now spiritually "clean" Willa says goodnight, the soft moon shining through a window into the altarlike bedroom, the bright stars speckling the night sky as the children escape down the river.

In the end, though, the publicists didn't know how to promote this Southern Gothic fairy tale about sexual repression, religious hysteria, pursuit and coming of age. Perhaps only Flannery O'Connor could have then appreciated its strange alchemy. Audiences found its unique blending of styles "arty" and off-putting. To some, Mitchum's histrionics could seem, as Shakespeare said of similar rhetorical flamboyance, to out-Herod Herod, while Gish's low-keyed naturalism, combined with her homespun Christian stoicism, often risks sounding corny. Overall, though, as Couchman says, "the film thwarts expectations at nearly every turn." And this perhaps is why it is so endlessly rewatchable, an ever-fresh and darkly American masterpiece.

Michael Dirda's reviews appear each Thursday in Style. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


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