Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"It's a hard world for little things."

The Night of the Hunter is above all a movie about storytelling.
From its opening scene in which we see Lillian Gish narrating a passage from a lullaby as a group of cherub-like children materialize from the stars, we get the overall idea of what the movie will be like.
What few people tell you is that unlike movies where children bedtime stories are filled with princesses, unicorns and happy endings, the one we're told here is marked by murder, tragedy and fear.
Completely Grimm-like (and outstandingly grim) the film follows the twisted Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) as he sets on destroying two orphans (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) whose mother he murdered (was any actress killed by her husband more than Shelley Winters during the 50's?)
The film which was directed by Charles Laughton (he never directed again!) has a pervading mood of melancholy only overshadowed by its perversity.
It's not as if Laughton likes to make his characters suffer he just seems to have too much respect for them to give them an easy way out.
It's also interesting to note that Laughton never had any children of his own, which might explain why he never seems interested in being too reverential and sugarcoating life for the kids who ended up watching this movie.

"John, would you tell me a story?" asks little Pearl (Bruce) to big brother John (Chapin)

The film was shot by DP Stanley Cortez using techniques that give the entire film the quality of a Gustav Doré engraving by way of Dr. Mabuse.
In this way he and Laughton are able to come up with iconic shots that seem to be extracted from either a storybook or a nightmare (the scene where Powell rides under the moonlight as the kids watch him from a barn still gives me goosebumps).
And my favorite shot in the film encompasses this very idea.

Lillian Gish's Ms. Cooper keeps vigil as Powell lures outside her home waiting to attack and take the kids with him.
I love how the lightning reminds you of something nostalgic like Whistler's Mother but then you realize this lady has a huge rifle with her.

I'll be cheating because I didn't go for a single shot, given that I see this series of shots as a single one united by Gish's pose and defined by the way in which they manipulate light.
As Gish waits in the dark one of the kids comes up to her with a candle, perhaps to reveal that the light banishes evil (giving the entire scene yet another rich layer of how Laughton deals with spirituality and faith)

Ms. Cooper tells her to turn the thing off, completely sure that the darkness can only remain such surrounded by darkness, and when she does we realize Powell is gone.
You could say that in this moment Laughton materializes all of our childhood fears and takes them to the level of adulthood where we realize that perhaps fairy tales do not come true.

This post is part of the lovely Nat's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

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