Long shadows

Film byJonathan Romney

"Little children," muses Lillian Gish at the end of The Night of the Hunter, "they abide and they endure." Charles Laughton's film has endured, although it very nearly didn't. On release in 1955, it was an out-and-out flop, with critics expressing reservations that might still occur to bemused first-time viewers today. The New York Times found it "soft and porous towards the end"; Variety wondered, "Why all this knitting of pictorial lace?"

Laughton's single film as director still strikes us as bewildering - when it's not evoking the primally satanic, it can seem homespun and precious. The nursery-tale elements are all the more unsettling if you only know the film through its iconic image of Robert Mitchum as the preacher Harry Powell, black hat aslant over hooded hawk eyes, "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles. If you're used to the image of Powell as daddy to all American cinema's subsequent psycho-killers, it's a shock to enter the film through its unnervingly twee beginning, with the lullaby chant over the credits and children's disembodied faces floating in the sky. It's the preciousness of the setting that makes Powell's darkness so magnetic - it shows him up as Satan in the Edenic setting. But the film is set in an Eden we can't trust - everything in this garden seems cloying, tainted with something unsavoury. The preacher becomes the one figure we can trust, simply because he's a solid presence.

The Night of the Hunter is based on a best-selling novel by Davis Grubb, initially adapted by James Agee, who gets the screenplay credit, although Laughton effectively abandoned his contribution and rewrote it himself. Set in the depression, the film begins with the psychopath Powell, a preacher against the flesh, totting up his victims. He's forever recounting the struggle of good and evil, using his tattooed knuckles as a rudimentary puppet-show. Tellingly, in his formula of "left-hand-right-hand", there's no "and" - they're more closely intertwined than even he guesses. There's a screaming Freudian eruption early on: as Powell watches a stripper on stage, swallowing his excited rage, his knife bursts out, slicing right through his pocket. We can guess that those white knuckles aren't just for storytelling.

Powell moves in on Willa (Shelley Winters), hoping to lay his hands on her recently executed husband's fortune. Marrying her, he promptly operates a merciless programme of sexual repression. She's soon preaching, too, gasping, "I feel clean now - my whole body's just a-quivering with cleanness." Her terrified children head off into the wilderness, surveyed, in the film's most dream-like sequence, by a nocturnal bestiary straight from Perrault. They're rescued by Lillian Gish's proverbial fairy godmother, the protector of all children and the very figure of tough love, with her soap, biblical parables and stern warnings against sex.

We never quite know where we are in this film. We think we're in the depression years, but it feels more like some postlapsarian desolation where children roam begging for potatoes. Nor are we sure exactly what kind of cinematic world we're in. Laughton prepared by watching the work of D W Griffith - hence the casting of Gish. But the film confronts Griffith's moral directness with the dense oneirism of German Expressionism. In his unnatural relationship to shadows and light, the preacher is a direct descendant of Murnau's Nosferatu. Young Billy sees the preacher's looming shadow on the bedroom wall: he looks out of the window, and Powell is standing beneath a lamppost, but in such a way that he couldn't possibly cast that shadow.

Laughton's cinematographer was Stanley Cortez, who had shot Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and would later work with Samuel Fuller on his nightmare narratives The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Indeed, Laughton seems to have come to directing for the first time rather as Welles did, as a theatre man - with no preconceptions about what cinema shouldn't attempt, and with ideas about illusion and stagecraft that a more purely filmic sensibility might not have conceived. The film goes from extreme naturalism (the impossibly lofty aerial shots at the start) to sets so flagrantly artificial that they look like the archetypal setting of a dream. Space shifts in unsettling ways: Winters' bedroom at first looks real but later, by some squalid miracle, changes into a dark chapel, walls tapering up to a point. Even in this dream universe, it's hard to know what to make of Gish's archaic, almost aggressively wholesome presence. Her Rachel is as disturbing a figure as Powell - as the embodiment of good, she's in complicity with him, grappling with him like those two hands. In one of the film's eeriest sequences, they even sing a duet, at a distance - a reminder that this is really the least celebrated of American musicals. Her regime is based on sexual repression every bit as draconian as his.

That's what makes the pay-off less cloying than downright scary: little children abide and endure, but perhaps only as children. The Night of the Hunter remains most frightening as a story about the terror of adulthood and the denial of sexuality. Despite the "soft and porous" appearance, there's more night than salvation in this profoundly disturbing film, with good proving as tyrannical and unreasonable a force as evil. There's a much more troubling pattern in that pictorial lace than we might suspect.

"The Night of the Hunter" (15) plays in London at the Curzon Soho (0171-439 4805) and at the Pullman Everyman (0845 606 2345)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish