Ask most people today for a few Hollywood films from the 1950s, and you’ll probably get a slew of titles of Technicolor escapism: Hitchcock thrillers, MGM musicals, a few big-budget Biblical epics. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get some works by Ford, Hawks, or Ray–challenging and subversive, yes, but oftentimes still recognizable as marketable, easily-sold genre pieces first and foremost. I doubt that most of the people who saw The Searchers in its day were going to the cinema for a nuanced look at the history of racism in America, for example.
By contrast, The Night of the Hunter is boldly, even confrontationally, just plain-ole out there. Although adapted from a pulp novel and produced under the auspices of being a low-rent thriller–akin to the other dark dramas that we would later come to refer to as film noir–it’s a far cry from The Big Knife or Kiss Me Deadly, both of which were also released in 1955. Its narrative point-of-view, from that of a child, makes it far too fairytale-eqsue to fit in alongside the noir compatriots it’s often lumped in with. Yet the sheer terror that Robert Mitchum brings as the villainous false preacher places it so far out of the wheelhouse of the kiddie matinee fare of its time, too. It’s borderline Gothic, deeply expressionistic, and–above all else–a dark look at the underbelly of the pastoral America MGM and other studios were so intent on selling.
Much of what sets The Night of the Hunter so deeply apart from its contemporary releases is its overt influence from the cinema of the past. At a time in which cinema seemed to be headed either toward shocking modernity (a la the European arthouse fare of the time) or generic stability (in the case of Hollywood), director Charles Laughton and his assembled team consciously structured The Night of the Hunter in both look and feel as a re-imagining of the silent cinema of a generation before them.
Visually, the film cribs an astonishing amount from silent German expressionist releases such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. Mining the expressionists for imagery was nothing new in Hollywood at this point; the movement’s interplay of light and shadow popped up in everything from the Universal horrors of the ’30s to any number of Warners gangster-and-cop pictures. However, The Night of the Hunter set itself apart from this cinematic grave-robbing by moving towards direct and overt homage in its use of expressionist technique. Multiple shots within the film make use of highly stylized lighting and impossible angles that not only recall Caligari but seem to point out their inherent un-reality; in effect, transforming the power of quoting a former film from merely achieving the realist, moody effect that it would in a typical detective flick into recalling the same blurring between the mind and the screen that the quoted filmmakers were going for in the first place. The result is a film that feels nightmarish and primal, with the expressionist cribbing working as unconscious signposts and pathways for the audience to follow into the depths of terror.
Yet despite such an inherent feeling of dread and despair, The Night of the Hunter oftentimes feels like a Depression-era fable or fairytale–what with its clear distinctions between good and evil, its cast of everyday Appalachians, and its singsong narrative rhythm. Much of what provides this grounding in reality comes from the film’s narrative indebtedness to the American silent film director D.W. Griffith. Although Griffith is largely known today for his large-scale epics (Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, and the horrifically racist The Birth of a Nation), his influence here comes mostly from his “smaller”, more forgotten pictures. Despite making a name for himself as Hollywood’s first blockbuster director, Griffith was also adept at directing folksy melodramas depicting average people. Films such as True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Broken Blossoms may have featured simple plots and stock characters from everyday life, but they thrilled mainstream audiences of the 1910s and early ’20s by injecting conflict and chaos into the humdrum world that those audiences easily recognized. Rather than focusing on spectacle, they brought the mundane to life–imbuing the commonplace with mystery, intrigue, and suspense.
By uniting such disparate influences, The Night of the Hunter became something heretofore unseen in Hollywood cinema: a nightmare that you could believe to be happening. While horror had been cheaply cranked out for as far back as anyone could remember, it was almost always fantastic and–more often than not–concerned with monsters, ghosts, and other ghoulies. The Night of the Hunter put the onus of malice squarely on the shoulders of a common man, gave him a rumbling baritone, and set him forth to seduce and destroy the innocent rubes of the backwoods. Although a flop upon its release–so much so that Laughton never directed another film–it’s impossible to look back on it now and not see the parallels between Mitchum’s evil-dressed-as-good and the Red Scare–or, for that matter, any other number of moralizers given too much power in the post-war period. For such reasons, it’s still shockingly relevant today; in 2016, just as in 1955, there is no shortage of loud con-men looking to exploit the common man by anointing themselves the moral saviors of the Earth.