|Sometimes the films regarded as classics in their day fail to persist into the future, but a more interesting phenomenon is when films that were neglected, or even flopped, go on to be regarded as classics. It could be it takes years, decades, for some to settle into their correct level of acclaim, and who knows how many of them are still in existence from the twentieth century that will be rediscovered and elevated to that lauded status, but The Night of the Hunter is assuredly one of those efforts that managed to achieve that feat. From a film that was politely reviewed as a directorial novelty from a famous actor, it is now one of the greats of nineteen-fifties Hollywood.
That famous actor was Charles Laughton, a troubled talent who enjoyed his heyday in the nineteen-thirties, though remained a major star into his old age despite the roles diminishing in screen time. Actor Simon Callow, who penned a biography of Laughton, observed the irony that all this time after his death it was not so much his acting he was best known for, but instead for directing The Night of the Hunter, and it's true to say there are damn few comedy dads doing impersonations of his Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty now, though his playing of Quasimodo in the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains definitive, and perhaps he could conceivably be recalled for it.
That said, among the newer generations Quasimodo more probably means the Disney cartoon, where the character was voiced by Tom Hulce in decidedly non-Laughtonesque vocal stylings, so it could be that the great thespian of stage and screen may slip into the past along with the likes of David Garrick or Sarah Bernhardt, hugely respected and influential in their day, but largely unknown by all but acting scholars. Though if you've ever envisaged King Henry VIII at a banquet taking a bite out of a chicken leg and throwing it over one shoulder, then it's Laughton you're thinking of, despite the fact that in The Private Life of Henry VIII he did no such thing. It's funny what can endure.
The Night of the Hunter, on the other hand, continues to gather new fans year by year, even as the Davis Grubb source book goes out of print and the opportunities to seek out older movies seem swamped by newer ephemera. Yet this is a real word of mouth triumph, and has been since a short while after it was on release: true, not many went to see it in cinemas in 1955, but some of those who did never forgot it, especially if they had seen it when young, the same age of the child protagonists John and Pearl. And so what Laughton described as a nightmarish Mother Goose story tapped into something primal and elemental in the fears of childhood: abandonment, punishment and guardians turning abusers.
That story was simple enough. John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) see their father (Peter Graves) arrested for murder and robbery, but what nobody but them know is he has given them the wads of cash to hide in Pearl's rag doll. However, when in prison awaiting hanging, the father blabs accidentally to his cellmate the money is back with his family, and unfortunately for them the cellmate is Preacher Harry Powell, played in his favourite role by screen legend Robert Mitchum. Unfortunate because Powell was based on a real life serial killer and has a horrifying line in marrying and murdering young widows for their savings, which is precisely what he intends to do to Graves' wife Willa (Shelley Winters) - but he has a problem.
Not with Willa, she is malleable and easy to dominate, but the children, especially John, see through Powell and refuse to give up the stash of cash, leading to scenes of magical horror as Willa ends up at the bottom of the lake with her throat cut by his switchblade and the kids are forced to flee in the night of the title. An incredible set of images follow, starting with Powell wading into the river they are floating down in a rowing boat and letting out an electronically treated shriek of frustration; Laughton added bits of buffoonery to prevent the character seeming unrealistically formidable, but they have the opposite effect, rendering his murderous intent and relentlessness all the closer to outright insanity it is impossible to reason with. The insanity of fundamentalist religion.
The film, no matter it was made in the fifties and is set in the Depression of the thirties, has very modern attitudes to such themes as political and religious hypocrisy, and even sex, all matters dear to the closeted director's emotions: like contemporaries such as A Face in the Crowd or Sweet Smell of Success, this is a cult movie that appeals across the gulf of time. Perhaps its scathing view of Christianity and its hold on the morals was excused by Lillian Gish's character who appears in the last act as a figure of tough love and redemption and takes the children under her wing; just look at how the teenager in her brood is forgiven for sleeping around because she is understood to be starved of affection and you see how startling The Night of the Hunter can still be. But it was those eerie scenes and sequences of wild terror for the youngsters that strike deep in the heart, and you suspect if Laughton's acting is forgotten, his directing genius will remain, if only for this remarkable one-off.
[The Criterion Collection release The Night of the Hunter on a 2-disc Blu-ray edition with these multiple features:
New digital transfer made from 35 mm film elements restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with MGM Studios, with funding provided by the Film Foundation and Robert Sturm, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary featuring second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones
Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, a two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage
New documentary featuring interviews with producer Paul Gregory, Sanders, Feeney, Jones, and author Jeffrey Couchman
New video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow
Clip from the The Ed Sullivan Show in which cast members perform a scene deleted from the film
Fifteen-minute episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film
Archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez
Gallery of sketches by author Davis Grubb, author of the source novel
New video conversation between Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin about Charles Laughton Directs
Original theatrical trailer
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: New essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow,]