Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inspirations: The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton (1955)

Charles Laughton's film The Night of the Hunter (1955) has thematic concerns in common with another of my inspirations: Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

To fully appreciate the second clip above, you have to know from the outset that Mitchum is the villain, from whom Lillian Gish is protecting the orphaned children sheltering in her house by means of the shotgun cradled across her lap. Laughton represents the conflict between these two characters (or rather, archetypes, who are defined in part by their opposed notions of God) by having them harmonise with each other while singing the same hymn, which they obviously understand in radically different ways. It is a brilliantly counter-intuitive dramatic strategy.

Simon Callow's book on The Night of the Hunter is an excellent introduction to this unique film, the only one directed by Laughton. On the film's tone and aesthetic, Callow explains (pp. 43-44):

From the beginning, Laughton had been insistent on conveying to all his collaborators the essential fairytale-like quality of the story. Everything, he told [art director Hilyard] Brown, should be seen from the boy's point of view. He accordingly designed the sets 'from the position that only children see certain things.' .... There was little pretence that a real world was being filmed, the shapely lines and symbolic details creating a highly stylised environment in which expressive power was achieved by painterly or sculptural means ....

On Mitchum as the villainous Preacher, Callow has this to say (pp. 65-66):

The performance is almost two-dimensional; both the actor and the character seem to be giving conscious performances, which lends a highly original dimension. At the risk of introducing an over-used and devalued tag, this is a Brechtian performance in the technical sense of the word - it is a demonstration of a certain kind of behaviour which promotes an analytical and critical attitude from the audience. .... Character becomes a kind of conjuring trick: the fascination comes from watching the way in which Preacher works his effects. The more naked the contradictions, the more chilling the effect.

Truffaut's initial review described the film as being like 'a horrifying news item retold by small children.' All of this recalls to me the following comment by Will Self on the worlds created in the fiction of Roald Dahl (quotation from The Guardian, 17 October 2009):

[T]here are big white spaces in Dahl-world where any realistic detailing might well be shaded in by a lesser writer; and again, in common with [Quentin] Blake’s vision, Dahl-world is at once lurid and curiously ill-defined. The passions are strong and clear – fear, hatred, avarice, love, greed (especially for sugar) – but they are played out against a backdrop that is only wonkily apprehended.

Dahl mimicked to perfection a believable child’s-eye view, that, looking up from below, sees the adult realm as foreshortened, and adult foibles as grossly elongated.


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