My alternative canon #2: The Night of the Hunter
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
I’ve only seen The Night of the Hunter once. As far as I can remember, it was at the sadly departed UC Theatre in Berkeley, which means that it would have been at least fifteen years ago, and possibly closer to twenty. I haven’t revisited it since, but it has left me with images that I’ll never forget. There’s Robert Mitchum, of course, as the murderous preacher with his knuckles tattooed with LOVE and HATE, which most film buffs probably know best through the homages in Cape Fear and Do the Right Thing. And then there are the weirdly surrealistic touches that have burned themselves into my memory like the flashes of a nightmare: Mitchum lunging after the two children in the basement with his arms extended like a cartoon villain; the dead body of Shelley Winters lying in her car at the bottom of the lake; Lillian Gish brandishing a shotgun on the porch; and the insane silhouette of Mitchum outlined against the horizon on horseback, which director Charles Laughton created using a midget riding a pony. When I saw it in the theater, its stylistic excesses often evoked uncertain laughter from the audience, which seems like the right response. Like Blue Velvet, which in some ways is its true successor, it’s the kind of film in which it can be hard to tell where craftsmanship leaves off and naiveté begins—although it’s probably safest, in both cases, to assume that the director is more sophisticated than we are. (The script is credited to the writer and film critic James Agee, although most sources agree that the finished screenplay is almost entirely Laughton’s.)
If I haven’t gone back to watch it in its entirety, it’s in part to maintain the hallucinatory experience of that first viewing: the more time goes by, the more it seems like one of my own half-remembered dreams. But the actual explanation doesn’t have any parallel in my life as a moviegoer. It’s because of the scene in which the brother and sister flee on a tiny rowboat from their monstrous pursuer, who lets out a howl of anguish as they escape from his clutches. The boy, exhausted, falls asleep in the boat almost at once, while the little girl sings softly to herself, stroking her doll’s hair, as they drift down the river together:
Once upon a time there was a pretty fly
He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly
But one day she flew away, flew away…
A process shot shows them drifting beneath a spider’s web, followed by an enormous toad looming in the foreground, and then it’s over. The entire scene lasts for less than a minute. But from the moment I saw it, I thought that it was the single most beautiful sequence in the history of cinema. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s like nothing else before or after it—in this movie or any other. And the real reason I’ve never watched The Night of the Hunter again is to preserve that memory. I’ve seen most of the classic scenes from my favorite movies so many times that they’ve lost much of their power. This is the one that I’ve decided to leave alone, revisiting it maybe once a decade, in hopes that its magic will stay intact for as long as I have eyes to see it.