The classic Hollywood film that never was
When a cache of movie reels was discovered around 40 years ago in a storeroom belonging to film actress Elsa Lanchester – who played the bride of Frankenstein in 1935 – it proved to be a revelation, as well as a turning point, for the reputation of Hollywood actor Charles Laughton.
Elsa and Charles had previously been in a marriage of convenience at a time when no one in the public eye could admit to being gay.
Mid-career Laughton got fed up with acting and thought he could turn his hand to directing. And so it was that in 1952 he embarked on a movie which had a limited budget, was made in only 36 days, predominantly on studio sets – that would become one of the most startling ever made.
It contained some remarkable performances and a luminous, visually arresting style, which was way ahead of its time.
Film archivists Robert Gitt and Anthony Slide took charge of Lanchester’s 80,000 feet of rushes for the American Film Institute in the mid-1970s. The reels of celluloid finally ended up at the UCLA Film and Television Archive where, for over two decades they were painstakingly edited into a two-and-a-half hour documentary which features on a new Blu-Ray of the film.
The warped Southern Gothic Night of the Hunter is a particularly frightening film and a creepy one too. Laughton’s biographer the actor Simon Callow called the movie “visionary… it speaks a language all its own.” Film writer David Thomson wrote that, ‘Night of the Hunter grows richer with every viewing and is one of the masterpieces of American cinema’.
It’s said that Laughton imbued the film with his acute distrust of religion and his Jesuit teachers, who he blamed for the self-loathing he felt as a gay man.
The film tells the story of Mr Powell (who hears God talking to him) played by Robert Mitchum, a phoney pastor and serial killer from a time before the term had even been coined.
In prison he discovers where the takings of a bank robbery are hidden and on release sets out to locate Willa (Shelley Winters) and her children at their farmhouse and vows to do anything (even commit murder) to unearth the money.
This almost magic-realist film is full of biblical overtones. The wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing pastor pursues two young children across country in one memorable, fever dream sequence along a riverbank.
It was said that Laughton did not like his child actors, 10-year-old Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce who was only five. But the outtakes show that was not the case. They did however require extra coaching, neither had much experience in acting, to get the most from their all-important performances.
In the outtakes Laughton can be heard off-camera getting them to repeat fluffed lines or, when they miss their cues, gently persuading and encouraging them.
But Laughton is just as emphatic with the other players: Winters, Mitchum and the silent star Lillian Gish. ‘You almost get the impression that Laughton would have been happiest if he could have dispensed with the cast and played all the parts himself’, wrote the archivist Robert Gitt.
Indeed, it’s the adults who more often than not need retakes when they lose their way in the script. In one memorable scene Bob Mitcham is talking to the little girl sitting on his knee. When he stalls, she pipes up “you’ve forgotten your line again!”
Unfortunately, the film got a tepid critical response on its release garnering awful box office figures.
After pouring his soul into the film’s making, Laughton was heartbroken and never directed again. It was only years later that the movie was rediscovered and hailed a work of genius.
Laughton couldn’t bear to throw away the old reels of coded rushes. They are now a unique record of filmmaking and film directing and, for that matter, the mechanics of film acting.
Normally a director would shout “cut” and the camera would stop rolling. He or she then consulted the actors or crew and they’d go for a second take. But, new to movie making conventions and not wanting to break the mood, Laughton kept the camera running and the 8 hours of unwanted footage edited together here creates a riveting ‘making of’ documentary.
Night of the Hunter is now, rightly, regarded as a stone cold classic. And what became of the cast?
Shelley Winters never really fulfilled her promise and was in a few clunkers but she was a well-liked actress who always found work.
Bob Mitchum is best remembered for his tough-guy roles in a number of film noirs.
Lillian Gish’s last film was made with another Hollywood legend Bette Davis in 1987.
The two children did not make it as adult actors. Little Sally Jane Bruce never acted again and became a primary schoolteacher.
Laughton himself did not recover from the poor reception for Night of the Hunter. As an actor though he appeared in several subsequent movies and was often the best thing in them. He died in 1962 at the age of just 63.
Info: Night of the Hunter is released on two-disc Blu-ray by www.criterion.com on 28 June