David Thomson writes in Have you Seen. . .? that when he showed Night of the Hunter to “Americans” (presumably his students) a bunch of years ago, the young viewers loved it (and were scared by it). The adults found it silly and couldn’t understand the hype. Well, I was with those adults for the first half of the film. The 2nd half, though, I bought it. The turn may have come during the haunting underwater shot of dead Willa, sitting pinned in the passenger seat of the Ford open car, her hair floating laterally across her face.
Then it gets weird and enchanting in equal measure. The basement scene when the kids lock Mitchum in and get away epitomizes the weird. Slapstick, really. The river escape sequence: the enchanting. And the flat horizon shot of Mitchum passing on a horse (really a little person on a pony, so the documentary tells us)–you can’t believe the simple brilliance of it. Pearl’s (dubbed) boat song (“Pretty Fly”) gives me the shivers. And then during the last act with Ms. Cooper (Lilian Gish), I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Gish may be the best acting asset of the film. She’s so compelling and emotionally present. And I’m not sure she was meant to be more than a fairy godmother type.
I learned in the included documentary that Charles Laughton (now one of my favorite directors–on the basis of this, his one and only, film) meant the film as a commentary on religious hypocrisy, on the zealotry and closed-mindedness that condemned him to a life of closeted homosexuality. That adds layers that I’ll look forward to pulling apart in repeated viewings.
If I judged the film only on the first half (upon the Shelly Winters character (pitiful — meant to be sacrificed, I suppose), the Peter Graves’ character (too quickly drawn–shallow), and the shrill and two-dimensional Icey Spoon), I don’t know that I could say much for it. I’m lucky I stuck with it.
One more thing I loved: the duet between Gish (holding the rifle!) and Mitchum (in the rifle’s sight!). “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” (Iris Dement’s version is playing in my head as I type).