Fairy Tales I

film 2 of 3

The Night of the Hunter

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 14, 2015

The Night of the Hunter is a super-celebrated film, and it should be. But we can take that kind of thing for granted, can’t we? We put the title on a get-to list, and then never get to it. Or we see it dutifully, and dully file the experience away, often internalizing the common wisdom without actually testing it against our own experience. Or, we hear the hype, then look at the object thereof, and come away disappointed. Sometimes on purpose! We’ve all been tempted to be disrespectful of the mighty and great.

Do any of those apply to you, with this one? The common wisdom on Night of the Hunter is that it’s really great. If you see it you may find it to be untidy, all-over-the-place, and frankly kind of weird. If you did, then you would have been right, and in these things you would have identified some of the reasons for a middling box office, and the fact that it’s super-celebrated director never deigned to make another picture in that capacity.

It’s fits-and-starts. There are confusing narrative ellipses. The style, or the look, goes back and forth. It isn’t restrained or, in a certain sense, modest. It looks you right in the eye—verfremdungseffect!—and catches you looking back at it. In that sense, it can be uncomfortable. Some of the performances are, shall we say, Pearl-like.

So what’s the big deal? Well, in a too-tooled industry, where slick and glib commercial decorum tends to buff out far too many scratches, a brave, stubborn, intractable prodigy like The Night of the Hunter can serve both as reproof and prod. We can be such cowards! And we can change the fact! TNotH is certainly trying to do its part.

It is unashamedly performative. You’re aware of the fact, and you’re aware of yourself while you’re at it. The film’s use of alienation devices (look up director Charles Laughton’s really fascinating Brecht connections) will keep you on your toes, either helping you or forcing you to make all sorts of intertextual connections. It’s a conscious throwback to German Expressionism, and then to the seemingly incompatible naked emotionalism, miraculously mixed with such subtle poetry, of DW Griffith. It’s Lillian Gish! And almost, but thankfully, not quite equally, it’s Robert Mitchum too.

Maybe more than anything The Night of the Hunter is a film fairy tale, glancing and stylized, so profound and complete in its partiality, reflecting in its aesthetical apartness some of our deepest dreams, worst fears, best aspirations. Artificial to the point of preposterous implausibility. And then—”don’t he ever sleep?” Shiver me timbers! I saw it when I was really small, and found it to be insinuating, searing, indelible. I wondered about it, felt impatient toward it during my restive early-adulthood. I came back with my own kids close at my side. Ah! It’s a dark forest, and an intimation of saving magic, just around the corner …