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Two Amazing Nights with The Night of the Hunter Posted on 08/22/2002.

Last week I had two amazing nights with my favorite American film, The Night of the Hunter. Folks who know me know that I can blather endlessly about this inspiring piece of work, so beware...

"Have you heard the story of left-hand right-hand?"

The First Night of The Night of the Hunter

The first amazing night was watching the film on DVD at home. Previously, I'd only seen it in theaters. It's an utterly sumptuous film, shot by Stanley Cortez, pretty much requiring the silver screen to due justice to the expressionistic play of light and shadow. However, my theater-viewing experiences were hamstrung by the audiences' inability to appreciate NOTH for what it is. See, NOTH is a deeply allegorical film, shot in a fantastic style. Much of the film's magic is due to its cinematic license in not having to represent "reality," and instead offers up impossible imagery that allows for a deeper and more direct telling of the films themes.

Willa among the weeds.

Unfortunately, modern audiences have little to no idea how to appreciate this. Raised on a diet of TV and movies rooted in dramatic realism, when faced with something that's designed to be otherworldly, they bring their past experience to bear, and then simply miss the point of what's on the screen in front of them. Of course Birdie Steptoe wouldn't see Willa so clearly at the bottom of the river. Of course the Preacher couldn't cast that shadow on the childrens' bedroom wall. Of course the house and barn on the riverside appears stagey and fake. *That's the point*. Such devices express an emotion or provide a context that requires such liberties.

Shots from the trip down river, as the animals of the kingdom watch over John and Pearl. If this doesn't set your "allegory" bells ringing, well, there's no help for you.

So, watching the film at home, and not distracted by the nervous giggles and commentary of people not "getting it", I had a nearly transformative experience watching NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. I've seen it many times, but I'm still able to get lost in the story, the imagery, the acting, the music. This was my first viewing where I actually got choked up and cried--when John's little fingers slowly reach out to hold Mrs. Cooper's hand.

Mrs. Cooper joins The Preacher in singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"

Watching the film in this way was like viewing a piece of art, or reading a book. It became an intensely personal experience, a direct connection between what was on the screen and me. Films are often best in theaters, with audiences, where the emergent reactions and emotions of the audience meaningfully effect your experience--we "go to the movies" as much to be in a group of others as we do to enjoy the work up on the screen. NOTH, though, might be a film best enjoyed alone (which would suggest why it didn't do so well at the box office).

The Second Night
The second amazing night I had was viewing "Charles Laughton Directs The Night Of The Hunter", a three-hour presentation of rushes, dailies, and outtakes from the making of the film, made possible by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Yes, I flew down to L.A. just to see this (and flew back the following morning, 'cause I had to get back to work. Thankfully, Southwest made this all economically feasible.).

Charles Laughton

Laughton loved to keep the camera running, getting take after take after take, so the clips shown reveal how he interacted with his actors. Most obviously, he was a demanding director--he had an idea in his head of how things should be, and much of his direction was to get the actors to fulfill that particular vision. This was most clearly demonstrated in a series of takes of Willa Harper's soliloquy before she is murdered. She's lying on the bed, arms folded across her chest, the camera looking down on her from the foot of the bed. We see Laughton run Shelley Winters through innumerable takes, getting her to pronounce the word "hid" (as in, "where the money's hid") *just* right. To folks not familiar with filmmaking, this process looks like abuse--my viewing partner commented on how Laughton was being an "asshole." But, really, he was just being an incomparable director. There's nothing wrong with knowing what you want, and doing what it takes to get it. (Having just watched the DVD of Gosford Park, it's interesting to contrast this style with Altman's more "anything goes" approach.)

Willa turned out of the bed on the wedding night

My favorite parts of the outtakes were those that revealed the person behind the actor. In getting her motivated for the prayer revival scene, Laughton directs Winters to "say a prayer, any prayer, that you know"--just something to get her going. Winters immediately begins shouting out in Hebrew, betraying the fact that the actress playing the good Ohio River Christian girl is, in fact, Jewish.

After flubbing or forgetting a line, Robert Mitchum (called "Mitch" by those off camera), was prone to shouting "poontang!" in exasperation.

Though, after watching the outtakes, perhaps the biggest mystery of the film remained unsolved. As my dad said to me afterwards, "How did Mitchum do it? Where did that performance come from?' He'd never done anything like it before, yet he was so perfect, so in tune with the role. It's telling that, in the outtakes at least, Laughton doesn't provide Mitch with a lot of direction--it's as if Mitch just knew what it was to be Harry Powell.

I'll--uh, I'll--uh, stop here.

Though, with two links:
One to a page devoted to the film, with many great stills, some of which I've stolen.

The other to the book Heaven and Hell To Play With: The Filming of the Night of the Hunter. No idea if it's any good.

4 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Can't Get Enough of That Airline Industry Stuff."
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This is a fabulous report on your two-night experience with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Beyond all the rich insights and observations, I was impressed by your multi-media ability to express and share them so interestingly. It leads me to think that the Internet could become the platform for a new type of movie reviewing; one that could inform its users about current releases in ways much more effective than is being done in print or on TV.

Your assignment: do it!
Posted by BJMe @ 08/24/2002 03:55 PM PST [link to this comment]

It comforts me to know that your geekiness has not diminished after all these years.
Posted by Heather @ 08/25/2002 08:34 AM PST [link to this comment]

Just happened to rent this last week. The hymnal duet reminded me of my cat and the neighbor's, sitting on our porches, and starting at each other in hatred and yet sharing much in common.
Posted by Lou @ 08/25/2002 05:51 PM PST [link to this comment]

"Mitch" gave a performance truly mystifying. It is everything Davis Grubb had given to his preacher in the book version, but big Bob gave him overwhelming sex appeal, a childish wonder and quizzical eye that almost mocks Pearl's naivete. Mitchum obviously understood the novel damn well. Rather unusually he got motivated enough to give a damn, especially in front of a master artist like Laughton who treated his film like baby, not RKO B-candy. Good for you to spread The Word about this film and outtakes!
Posted by jacqui @ 01/20/2003 05:46 PM PST [link to this comment]

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