Film: Charles Laughton's beautiful nightmare
Hugely unusual horror is a classic -- but the tepid response to it at the time broke its director's heart
Readers in the greater Dublin area will get a rare chance to see Night of the Hunter on the big screen from today. The 1955 gothic classic will play all week at the Irish Film Institute: it's rarely shown on television these days, but was re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray before Christmas, and has stood the test of time.
Night of the Hunter is a strange and puzzling film. It regularly appears on lists of the greatest films ever made, but was politely dismissed by most critics on first release and did nothing at the box office. So shaken by the experience was its director that he never made another film. We can only wonder at what Charles Laughton might have achieved had he made a second or a third.
Laughton's movie is so odd as to defy comparison. A nightmarish fairytale inspired by the German expressionist filmmakers of the 1920s, it mixes terror and sentiment with bewildering ease and is one of the most genuinely scary horror films I've seen. Watching it is like living through a beautiful nightmare, and Night of the Hunter also boasts perhaps the finest performance by an important but underrated American film actor -- Robert Mitchum.
First and foremost, Charles Laughton was a stage actor. Born in Scarborough in 1899 to a Yorkshire father and an Irish mother, Laughton spent much of his 20s running the family hotel, and remained an amateur actor until 1925. After studying at RADA he became an overnight success on the London stage, where his burly charisma and mesmerising voice earned him rave reviews.
In 1927 he married actress Elsa Lanchester, who would go on to play the monster's mate in James Whale's horror classic Bride of Frankenstein, and in the early 1930s they both moved to Hollywood. They stayed together until the end but Laughton was gay, and their marriage was not conventional.
In 1933 Laughton won an Oscar for his portrayal of a debauched monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Laughton was no matinee idol. But in spite of this he became a major Hollywood star through the 1930s.
Laughton was a cultured and intelligent man, and soon grew tired of rattling along the Hollywood production line. In the 1940s he began teaching acting in Los Angeles and doing very popular public readings of Shakespeare, Dickens and the Bible.
Laughton also became a very accomplished stage director, and in the early 1950s his pushy agent Paul Gregory persuaded him it was time to turn to filmmaking. They acquired the rights to an unpublished first novel by a young writer called Davis Grubb. Laughton fell in love with Night of the Hunter, and became obsessed with evoking on film its hypnotic and dreamlike tone.
It was a quintessentially American story, a kind of adult fairytale about a serial killer who poses as a Bible-quoting preacher in order rob money from a widow and her children.
Critic and screenwriter James Agee was hired to adapt the novel, and a deal was struck with United Artists. There's been a lot of argument about who actually wrote Night of the Hunter's finished script. Agee was a chronic alcoholic who'd be dead within a decade, and in her autobiography Elsa Lanchester claimed that Laughton became exasperated by Agee's unprofessionalism and dashed out an adaptation himself. Paul Gregory, who became Night of the Hunter's producer, commented that "the script produced on the screen is no more James Agee's than I'm Marlene Dietrich", and Robert Mitchum also belittled Agee's involvement.
But recent discoveries have proved that James Agee did produce a finished and polished if ridiculously long script, and the likelihood is that the diplomatic Laughton helped him cut it in half. And in any case, it's what Laughton did with that script afterwards that's really extraordinary.
The predominant style of filmmaking in the 1950s was gritty, knowing and grimly realistic, but Charles Laughton's instincts took him in entirely the opposite direction. With its wonky sets and overwrought, lyrical tone, Night of the Hunter looks like a bad dream, and the acting is deliberately heightened, and theatrical.
Robert Mitchum was an extremely effective screen actor, but tended to act within himself and rely on his menacing charisma. In Night of the Hunter Laughton asked him to push himself to play a pure embodiment of evil, a dark-hearted maniac whose viciousness is only enhanced by his Bible-quoting cant. Mitchum responded magnificently. Harry Powell is sharing a prison cell with a condemned man called Ben Harper when he finds out that the unfortunate man has hidden $10,000 in his house. When Harry gets out he seeks out the widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) and her two children, John and Pearl, and tries to trick them into revealing the loot's location.
With the words 'love' and 'hate' tattooed across his knuckles, Harry poses as a roving preacher and woos Willa with revolting efficiency. And when he finds out that the boy knows where the money's hidden, he embarks on a campaign of terror in order to get his way.
Charles Laughton had a very clear vision of how he wanted the film to look, and hired Stanley Cortez, who'd worked with Orson Welles on the ill-fated Magnificent Ambersons, as his cinematographer. Cortez realised Laughton's aesthetic brilliantly, and the film is full of woozy, haunting images, like the long shadow of a Harry growing up the wall of the children's bedroom, and the drowned Willa floating in a submerged car.
In all good storytelling, evil needs a counterpoint, and Charles Laughton's childhood idol Lillian Gish played an implacable, gun-toting old lady who becomes the children's savior. There was a dark magic to Laughton's finished film, and he and his cast were convinced they'd made something special.
But Night of the Hunter's weirdness failed to chime with the times, and United Artists didn't help matters either. They weren't impressed by it, and devoted all their energies to promoting Robert Mitchum's next film, a rather forgettable medical melodrama called Not as a Stranger, instead. Night of the Hunter was pointedly ignored come awards time.
Robert Mitchum, who wasn't much given to luvvy hyperbole, later said that Charles Laughton was his favourite director, and Night of the Hunter the favourite film he'd acted in. And Stanley Cortez, who knew what he was talking about, said that he'd only worked with two directors who "understood light" -- Orson Welles and Charles Laughton.
Devastated by the failure of a project for which he'd such high hopes, Laughton abandoned plans to adapt Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead for the screen, and never made another film.
He returned to the stage, played Shakespeare and did reading tours, and appeared in only four more movies before he died of cancer in December of 1962. He was 63.
Laughton's biographer, Simon Callow, believes that the failure broke his heart. "He had found his métier, everything in his career and life so far had been preparing him for filmmaking, but it came too late for him to withstand the rough indifference of the commercial cinema."
Perhaps, but at least Charles Laughton got to fully realise his poetic vision in his single, almost perfect film.