When director Charles Laughton’s first and sadly final film, The Night of the Hunter, was released back in the summer of 1955, it marked an irrevocable burden on the mind of one of Britain’s most applauded stage and screen actors. Laughton, who trained in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, starred in more than 50 works of film, both short and theatrical, before stepping behind the camera to adapt Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name. The burden that caused Laughton to abandon the director’s chair came in the form of critical disdain and audience dismissal upon release of his debut, an outcome that many believed to be caused by little to no marketing. Given the subject matter, themes and tones stalking every frame, marketing it to a wide audience in 1955 would have been a difficult and daunting task, even if we weren’t judging its history through decades of reflection. Though no matter how many lobby cards filled theaters, television spots small screens, or write-ups newspapers, the new Christianity of the Eisenhower era wasn’t ready for such a film.
There’s the stalker, a murderous hand of god that roams the Ohio countryside preaching the cataclysm of sinners, predominately women and their sexual proclivities. The two orphans eluding the preacher along a hauntingly serene riverbed, a sound stage Laughton had constructed as to manipulate sights and sounds. The heavy tones and shadows that layered the film beyond simply another film noir, the lighting bouncing off its expressionistic architecture like geometric thunder.
Sex wasn’t exactly a taboo subject back then, with the first issue of Playboy hitting newsstands in 1953, a mere two years before Laughton made it the focal point behind damnation, but it was years from being deemed fit as table talk. While the world had its Monroe and Mansfield’s, the visual stimuli brushing shoulders with every name in cinema, it also had the one thing that stretched higher than the Hollywood hills; God.
There’s a scene early in The Night of the Hunter that has John (Billy Chapin), our hunted child, reciting a passage from the bible to his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), the light of a kerosene street lamp casting a looming silhouette against their bedroom wall. “Just a man” John says before hopping into bed, the imminent danger not quite apparent. It’s a threat that would slowly and persistently make its way into the children’s lives, guided by a hymnal song – “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms” – that threatened more than the lives of two children.
This hymn, gaily sung by Robert Mitchum, was written in 1887 by Anthony J. Showalter, who was inspired by a phrase in the Book of Deuteronomy – the fifth book in the Christian Old Testament – that reads “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” It’s a hymn that, like the preacher, considers itself guiding and benevolent, a spiritual observer of the great land that pricks the ears of those lost. The further John and Pearl run, the closer this song comes to being a warning of the self-righteous slaughter that plagues their path, a fear of the hand of god, rising up and striking them down from above.
Under the Eisenhower administration, fearing Russian missile strikes, people turned to the only sanctuaries they knew–theater and church–to relieve the fear for Russian missile strikes and combat the Communistic atheism. As God moved further into the beliefs of Americans, it too moved swiftly to the aid of John and Pearl, kneeling before Harry’s mighty sword – or phallic switchblade – in the form of cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s angularly gothic shots of rural Americana. Working with deep shadows that highlighted the dark thematic elements, Cortez framed The Night of the Hunter with triangular shapes, their three equal sides suggesting what it means to be three in one: the son (John), the father (Harry), and the Holy Ghost (Rachel, an aged caretaker of lost souls, played by Lillian Gish). Each plays their own believed role of God, with the preacher blasphemously masquerading as a false prophet, a bearer of bad fruit that Rachel hints at in the opening credits:
“And then the good Lord went on to say, ‘Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.”
Laughton and Cortez who also worked on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons’, employed the use of German Expressionism, a post-WWI movement that explored oblique lines and sharp, heightened angles, often painted on canvas. Combining these gaunt expressionistic lines with the drenched qualities of film noirs shadows, Laughton, along with Art Director Hilyard Brown (Cleopatra), highlighted the many geometric shapes of mid-century American architecture.
For many Christians, the use of triangles symbolizes a sort of spiritual doorway that is considered as a place of idol Worship in the Old Testament – which our preacher embraced through hymn – that saw demonic influences and activities. Equally, sacrilege could be unveiled in a scene that has John and his friend Bernie (James Gleason), an old drunkard with a good heart, killing a fish after scooping it up from the very river that swept our orphans downstream. The idea of the fish within Christian faith distinguished brethren from foe, a marker for like ideologies throughout Greece and Italy. Subsequently, the killing of the fish by John and Bernie can be seen as a rejection of the very faith that was sweeping a terrified nation, one that kneeled before the credence of cinema and faith.
Perhaps the artistic interpretations turned away audiences, many of whom were clutching Christianity as a substitute for Red Fear. Perhaps it were the impiety that radiated from the script, one that Laughton reworked himself with James Agee (The African Queen). Perhaps all of this is mere speculation, a casualty of coincidence that floundered on the lack of promotion by producer Paul Gregory (The Naked and the Dead). Flourishing decades after its initial release thanks to the preservation by the National Film Registry, The Night of the Hunter faired so poorly in the states that Laughton never returned to helm another film. Ironically, in 1955, the same year of its release, the phrase “In God We Trust” became immortalized on paper money across the country.