One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present
A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036
1955 BEST PICTURE
WINNER: Marty (Hecht-Lancaster/United Artists; Delbert Mann) Other Nominees: Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo
THE BEST CHOICE: The Night of the Hunter (United Artists; Charles Laughton) Award-Worthy Runners-L’p: The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks), East of Eden (Elia Kazan), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich), Mister Roberts (John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
The Night of the Hunter – 1955
In 1955 Hollywood was still trying to lure viewers away from their television sets with big-budgeted, wide-screen color productions, yet the Academy selected a black-and-white film as its Best Picture for the third straight year and chose a modestly budgeted film for the second straight year. Robert Mitchum gave perhaps his finest and, with the possible exception of his sadist in Cape Fear, his creepiest portrayal as a phony preacher. Harry Powell marries and murders widows for their money, believing he is helping God do away with women who arouse mens carnal instincts. Arrested for auto theft, he shares a cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) and tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the $10,000 he stole. Only Ben’s nine-year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), and four-year-old daughter. Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know the money is in Pearl’s doll and they have sworn to their father to keep this secret. After Ben is executed, Preacher goes to Cresaps Landing to court Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He overwhelms her with his Scripture quoting, sermons, and hymns, and she agrees to marry him. On their wedding night he tells her they will never have sex because it is sinful. When the depressed, confused, guilty woman catches him trying to force John to reveal the whereabouts of the money, she is resigned to her fate and lets Preacher stab her to death. He almost stabs the children but they escape downriver. The Preacher follows. After a long, arduous journey John and Pearl are taken in by a Bible-quoting widow, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who cares for other orphans as well. She knows the children are troubled but doesn’t know why. Preacher turns up and demands his stepchildren. Rachel sees John is terrified and that Preacher is a phony. She chases him away. When he breaks into the house, she shoots him in the rear. The coward runs into the barn, where he is arrested. John swings the doll at him and the money pours out—he no longer has to keep the secret that has burdened him. Preacher is convicted of murder. John and Pearl settle in with Rachel, who marvels at how children abide and endure.
Adapted by Charles Laughton and James Agee (who got full screen credit) from Davis Grubb’s exciting Depression-era novel, Laughton’s single directorial effort is one of the great “discovery” films. Laughton supposedly didn’t care about the plight of John and Pearl Harper—he probably was attracted to Grubb’s story because it called for an unorthodox visual style and because of its malevolent, obsessed villain—and so detested child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce that he had Mitchum direct them. So it’s amazing that The Night of the Hunter conveys such heartfelt empathy toward helpless little children, and that it has such insight into the cruel, dangerous, frightening world of children, particularly orphans.
The story is part children’s nightmare, part gothic horror film (at one point Preacher chases the kids as if he were the Frankenstein monster), part religious parable (as told to a child), part Grimm fairy tale, and part animated-cartoon fairy tale. It is full of the sort of imagery, props, locations, and animals that a child like John might see in a dream. As this film stresses, for unprotected children who exist in a wilderness of fear and confusion, nightmares continue even when they are awake. John and Pearl are much like Hansel and Gretel lost in the wilderness, who find refuge not with a witch who cooks children but a Mother Goose figure who cares for orphans. Rachel tells the children to be aware of false prophets (a Bible-story image), of wolves in sheep’s clothing (a fairy-tale image). Preacher, a human wolf in sheep’s clothing, is the classic deceitful fairy-tale villain who is ready to pounce on innocents. Like the wolves and other sneaky villains in cartoons, he also supplies the slapstick humor that provides the film’s necessary moments of levity: while chasing the kids, he is always tripping, getting his fingers smashed, or getting conked on the head, and finally he gets shot in the behind, which causes him to howl as he runs at supersonic speed into the barn. His howling, his mock crying, even his creepy L-O-V-E vs. H-A-T-E (the letters tattooed on his fingers), hand wrestling, and deep-voiced sermonizing have elements of absurd humor. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t terrifying. The two orphans, who, before they meet Rachel, have no friends and no adults to turn to, would turn to God were they not convinced that God is on the side of this evil man who quotes the Bible and claims to be a preacher. How lonely and afraid the children feel, and how guilt)’ John feels for keeping his father’s secret from this man of God. It is the religious Rachel who shows them that God is on their side and that the Preacher is the sinner.
As Rachel, Lillian Gish triumphantly returned to the screen. She matches Mitchum with a powerful performance. And exhibiting goodness, solemnity, and determination that characterized Gish’s silent movie heroines, tiny Rachel perfectly counters Mitchum’s massive, intimidating, hammy Preacher. In my favorite scene Preacher starts singing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” while hiding in the darkne.ss and planning his attack on Rachel’s home. Surprisingly, Rachel, gun in hand, starts singing her version—which includes references to Jesus—to soften the effect of the blasphemer’s rendition. For a moment they harmonize and you know that she can’t be intimidated. Like John and Pearl—who didn’t trust anyone—we fall in love with Rachel and feel secure that she will protect these otherwise helpless children. Forget all those movie superheroes—Rachel is the answer to every scared child’s prayers.
Laughton spent a great amount of time studying the techniques of D. W. Griffith and the German expressionists before undertaking his first directorial assignment. His picture looks different from any other film of the period. He and cinematographer Stanley Cortez came up with a remarkable number of amazing shots, many taken from unusual angles and employing innovative lighting.
In the day the frame is either hazy or so bright that everything is washed out; at night there are dust, smoke, fog, and spooky shadows—the scariest shadow is the Preacher’s, which forms on the wall of the children’s room. At one point Laughton puts his camera in a helicopter; at other times he puts it directly behind a character’s face, or covers the character with shadows; even indoors the camera is kept at a distance so we see characters in relation to the floor, walls, ceilings, and props. It’s all quite exciting. My favorite shot is of John and Pearl floating downriver on their skiff, with the near bank and its animals in the foreground and the starry sky and fertile far bank in the background—its a magical multiplane image straight out of a Disney cartoon. Laughton made an auspicious debut as a director, but because his film failed he aborted his effort to bring The Naked and the Dead to the screen, and never directed again, which is a real shame. Surely a Best Picture Oscar would have changed his mind.