The great actor Charles Laughton directed only one film: The Night of the Hunter, a surreal adaptation of Davis Grubb's best-selling novel about two Depression-era children on the run from a murderous preacher.
You can see the bold influences of silent film in Laughton's visuals. Some of the landscapes are nothing but backlit cardboard cut-outs, the kind you'd see in a low-budget stage production. These effects heighten the fairy tale-gone-wrong atmosphere of Grubb's dark vision. It's a movie unlike anything else out there: nightmarish, creepy and dreamlike and, thanks to a great performance by Robert Mitchum, often perversely funny.
The disc also includes a stunning supplement that I saw screened at UCLA several years ago: rare footage of Laughton directing his actors. During the making of the movie and for many years after, there were rumors that Laughton and Mitchum didn't get along, and that the director loathed Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, the remarkable child actors who carry much of the film. But this supplement reveals a thoughtful and caring director working with wisdom, grace and verve. The inclusion of this fascinating supplement, a must-watch for writers and directors everywhere, makes this one of the must-have discs of the year.
To Laughton's dismay, The Night of the Hunter was a flop when it premiered in 1955, probably because of the vast stylistic liberties it took from the well-known novel. James Agee's script follows Grubb's story fairly closely, but Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez transport this murderous tale to a shadowed expressionistic realm that is anything but realistic. Audiences expected one thing, and were given some quite different entirely.
Although it's since been recognized as a landmark film by scholars and critics, Hunter is so strange and offbeat in its storytelling approach that some modern audiences still don't know what to make of it. I showed this film to a university-level screenwriting class a few years ago, and was stunned that most of the students (all in their 20s) gave it a big thumbs-down. Their major gripe: it felt "old-fashioned," a criticism with which I agree, but don't see as a detraction of any sort. I suppose a lifetime of watching frantically-edited CGI-laden fare (which will certainly feel "old-fashioned" in fewer years than we might guess) might numb one to this movie's slow but brutal charms. I sincerely hope those students revisit this one later in their lives. It holds up. A classic.