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in Filmmaking
on Aug 26, 2008

I mean, really, don’t. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and a personal top ten favorite… but here on this blog is not the way to see it.

Let me explain. I first saw Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter while visiting a friend’s house for the weekend. She had it on VHS and we watched it on a pretty small TV. I thought it was really good. Later, feeling I had missed out on seeing it on the big screen I caught it during a special run at New York’s Public Theater — back when the Public Theater had both a film theater and a film program. On its decent-sized screen, the film went from being a good film to being a masterpiece. A tiny moment at the end, when the boy is given an apple by Lillian Gish, gets swallowed up on the small screen, but projected this simple gesture is transcendent.

When Simon Callow’s monograph on the film was published by the BFI, I wrote about it in Filmmaker. An excerpt:

François Truffaut queasily likened The Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton’s 1955 directorial debut, to a “horrifying news item retold by small children.” Quoted in Simon Callow’s new British Film Institute monograph on the film, Truffaut goes on to offer a bit of middlebrow advice proving that the confluence of film criticism and box-office commentary is not solely a turn-of-the-century phenomenon: “Screenplays such as this are not the way to launch your career as a Hollywood director. The film runs counter to the rules of commercialism … it will probably be Laughton’s single experience as a director.”

Indeed, Laughton’s use of an Expressionist, theatrical mise en scene and flashes of burlesque humor to adapt David Grubbs’s best-selling blend of Southern Gothic and Grimms’s fairy tales resulted in newspaper attacks on the film’s “arty” direction. The reviews weren’t all bad but enough were; depressed and unfinanceable as a director, Laughton soon abandoned his planned adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Lack of critical support on its release coupled with Laughton’s retreat from film directing resulted in The Night of the Hunter’s peripatetic status within the Great Films canon. It’s the kind of glorious one-off that falls to the footnotes of film histories, even if it’s also the sort of masterpiece that other directors spend a career working up to


So here’s the film, courtesy of Hulu. But don’t watch it here. Track down a print somewhere. Or get the DVD and watch it on the biggest set you can find. Just don’t click below.

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