Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter

Updated 8/18/10: Criterion has just announced an upcoming two-disc DVD edition, which will thankfully feature several contributions from Robert Gitt, including a two-and-a-half-hour version of the following presentation.

A few weeks ago, e-tailers announced a long-awaited two-disc DVD collector’s edition of The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s expressionist masterpiece about the resiliency of children in a nightmarish adult world, but as quickly as cinephiles could get excited, the release was abruptly postponed. The movie is well-deserving of special edition treatment, not only because its original barebones DVD is incorrectly formatted as 1.33×1 open matte (the film was composed for 1.66×1), but also because it is often described as the only classic Hollywood film for which many of its rushes (nearly eight hours worth) still exist; this is in large part due to Laughton’s directorial method, in which he left the camera running for extended periods of time while actively coaching his performers through multiple line readings. Similar to Kiarostami’s working method today, Laughton would effectively play the roles offscreen so that he could personally shape the performances being filmed. Thus, he might intone Harry Powell’s lines while filming Billy Chapin (playing John Harper) and then turn the camera around and recite Harper’s lines while filming Robert Mitchum (playing Powell), and then edit the two together.

The rushes also exist thanks to the tireless, 20-year effort of film preservationist Robert Gitt, who in the ’70s initially collected the outtakes from Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, and later rescued them from “[AFI students who] were using the picture and magnetic sound trims as ‘fill leader’, padding for assembling work-prints for their own film projects.” In 2002, Gitt presented a three-hour compilation of the restored outtakes at UCLA entitled Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter along with live commentary. I wasn’t able to attend the event and have regretted it ever since . . . but this past weekend, Gitt offered his presentation once again. It would be a major disappointment if any future special edition DVD didn’t include this fascinating program.

The same year Gitt debuted his presentation, Preston Neal Jones published Heaven & Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter, a book about the making of the film that is largely a compilation of interviews with the cast and crew and a nearly scene-by-scene summary of the outtakes; it also includes many illustrations by Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. Grubb had a close working relationship with Laughton, who asked Grubb to draw many scenes as he originally pictured them. These weren’t used as storyboards, but as basic inspiration; Laughton depended more on his brilliant cinematographer, Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons), whom he had met on the set of 1949’s Man on the Eiffel Tower (portions of which Laughton ghost-directed), to create the film’s striking look. Cortez described his approach to Jones:

“The sharp contrasts in this picture, that was strictly my invention, and fortunately Charles agreed with that interpretation. . . . [Film stock] Tri-X had first come out around then, and I had used it on Black Tuesday [1954], where I experimented with a scene shot entirely by the light of one candle. I understand Mr. Kubrick is saying that Barry Lyndon is the first feature to shoot scenes with nothing but the light from some candles, but actually our scene with just one candle was the first. Anyway, the sensitivity on the Tri-X was faster than on the [filmstock] we were used to using. I used it on The Night of the Hunter not because of the technical phase but strictly for its dramatic properties. I wanted those deep blacks, because I felt that it would give me an added dramatic punch in there when a sequence called for it. I’m a firm believer in black. I don’t want to use the word ‘startle,’ but it holds you, like a diamond and its reflections, it magnetizes you.”

I’ve heard a lot of rumors about this film over the years–that Laughton hated James Agee’s script, that he hated the child actors, that Mitchum largely directed the children, etc. Now that better scholarship is coming out on the film, these legends are revealed as half-truths at best; for example, Agee had written a massive, experimental and unfilmable script so that Laughton ultimately had to write his own shooting script. (Though Agee kept the writing credit.) And anyone who watches the outtakes will see how personally invested Laughton was in the children’s performances; Mitchum merely offers a word here or there for support.

What comes across most in Gitt’s presentation is Laughton’s complete devotion to the material and his desire to invest deep feelings directly into every aspect of the production. He delivers an offscreen performance that’s worthy of appreciation in itself. During a particularly intense scene–when Powell confronts his wife (played by Shelly Winters) about her “snooping” and summarily slaps her–Laughton smacks something offscreen to time the slap; Winters flings her head to the side but then turns it back and dreamily delivers lines about faith and suffering in delusional bliss. Laughton repeats this action over and over again, insisting on a specific annunciation between two words as Winters visibly borders on exhaustion. (One wonders if the annunciation was really so pivotal or if Laughton was manipulating Winters, who had studied under the filmmaker before, to evoke the emotional tenor he sought.) This technique resurfaces several times in the rushes, and contributes powerfully to the brooding, dreamy tone of both the characters and the film in general. “If you can inhabit the world of the little boy, you’ll come off a thousand percent,” he tells an actor at one point. “You’ve got to live in the world of the little boy,” a fantastical perspective evoked throughout the film.

Some of the rushes are true outtakes–Laughton’s preamble, for example, in which he introduces the themes of the movie (which he eventually replaced with Lilian Gish), or Emmett Lynn’s performance as Uncle Birdie (who was eventually replaced by James Gleason); other rushes are simply the unused line readings and actions that surround the moments that were actually used in the film. Gitt strings them along, inserting stills for his own introductions and comments, focusing on specific moments and techniques that shed considerable light one of the most artistically successful films by a first and only time filmmaker. (The Night of the Hunter‘ s initial critical and commercial failure impacted Laughton severely, canceling his preparations to adapt Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and ensuring that he wouldn’t direct another film again.)

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