Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Great Shots: Night of the Hunter

Trying to pick a favorite shot from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter is like trying to pick a favorite note from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. My favorite is whichever one I'm experiencing at the moment. I went with this shot for this post because it encapsulates a number of things I love about this unforgettable movie.

Firstly, the shot is just plain beautiful. Shot by Stanley Cortez, The Night of the Hunter goes on a list with The Third Man and Raging Bull as one of the most breathtakingly photographed black and white films ever made.

Furthermore, it's funny. Not content to be merely scary, Laughton insisted his movie be clever too. The more you think of Hunter, the more you realize how subversive it is. The religious townsfolk in this movie are a gullible bunch, all too eager to form a mob today against what they loved yesterday. They fall for Reverend Powell's honeyed words with no resistance simply because he identifies himself as a man of God. Shelly Winters' poor Willa is so brainwashed she's declaring her faith in God's plan right up until the moment she's destroyed. The only religious person to peg Powell for what he is Lillian Gish's Rachel, but for all her faith in the Lord she's taking protection into her own hands in this scene. All throughout the film, especially in the shot above, Laughton uses the visuals to emphasize his warped view of Americana.

I love how utterly unconcerned Night of the Hunter is with realism in its lighting and production design. It's a film noir diorama that unfolds with the logic of a nightmare. I know modern movie audiences have lost the taste for blatant artifice. Most of them would likely dismiss Night of the Hunter as "fake." They're missing out. Hunter doesn't hesitate to discard realism at every turn, and it's all the better for it. It colonizes the imagination so long after other realistic horror films are long forgotten precisely because it's so unrealistic.

Filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Darren Aronofsky are keeping the spirit of Hunter alive. They know what Laughton and Cortez knew: A movie's success is not measured in its realism but in the power of its images. Any random slob with a smart phone can give you real life. It takes some of the best artists in cinema history to give you images like this.

Previous entries in the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series:

The Royal TenenbaumsThere Will Be Blood, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Angels in America, Se7en, La Dolce Vita, Pandora's Box, A Face in the Crowd, Black Narcissus


  1. i too had difficulty choosing one shot from the film, so included a few other than my very favorite.
    your selected shot is among mine too:

    but it's not surprising to me.
    this shot really does have a lingering effect.
    moreso, the entire film has that effect to be honest.
    i watched it for the first time last night and i had the images running through my head at work today.

    i admit, quite shamefully, that i've never seen the third man. but given what you say about it, i know what i'll be renting tomorrow!

  2. The Third Man is actually my #1 favorite movie. You are in for a treat my friend.

  3. I truly dislike del Toro but you're right, he is trying to keep the spirit of this movie alive.
    This one is just so effortless though!

  4. beautifully written. as someone who loves artifice (which can be more truthful than unimaginative replications of reality) I really appreciate what you wrote.

  5. Great shot for sure - recently saw this film and enjoyed it - especially once it gets going along. I definitly had a lot of feelings and thoughts after watching it.

    Sometimes the lack of realism would throw me - but I enjoyed it.