Night of the Hunter

Author: Chris Temple
Publisher: The NEURAL SURFER
Publication date: September 1997

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"Night of the Hunter" 

by Chris Temple

	 Charles Laughtonís "Night of the Hunter" when released, was a critical and
commercial failure.  It was the only film he ever directed and today, is
considered one of the greatest American films of all time.  How could such a
brilliant film be overlooked as this film was?  To understand this you must
first understand what this film is about and how it was crafted.
	The script by James Agee is a fairly standard script.  A psychotic preacher
who is a widow killer goes after these children, John and Pearl, because they
know where the money their father has hidden is buried.  The kids go on the
run and are taken into a home of refuge by a woman who cares for wayward
children.  The preacher goes after her and meets his demise.  This film on
the most elementary of levels is a thriller consisting of basic plot nuances,
such as the preacherís sexual tension and the directorís assault on religion.
 Its use of black and white photography further brings out its noir elements.
But there is a nightmarish quality to this film that takes you to another
level to convey to you the innocent, frightened perspective of what the world
is like to a child who doesnít understand any of the rules of how one exists
as an adult. The mise en scene amazingly brings this aspect of the film out
and is what makes this film rather brilliant.  
	This film is constructed on a dream logic and on a heightened sense of
reality, taking that of a childís perspective and being quite reminiscent of
a Grimmís Fairy Tale.  It is quite different from what "we adults" consider a
straight forward narrative structure.  This is best shown in the boat scene.
 The children have just escaped from the Preacher and are floating down
river.  Pearl sitting up in the boat, sings a song as John lays down to
"Once upon a time there was a pretty fly / had a pretty wife who had pretty
then one day she flew away/ she flew away / She had 2 pretty childs but one
night / 
those pretty childs flew away / into the night / into the moon" 

	The boat flows down river surrounded by nature, at one point passing
underneath a huge spiderís web.  The dominant contrast of this scene is the
spiderís web.  It is the brightest object in the frame and placed in the
foreground. The composition of the frame is divided into a left and right
hemisphere, the web taking up the left half of the screen as the tiny boat
flows through it across a horizontal plane; a large circle with a small
rectangle moving left to right.  The character placement is centered showing
their importance and the movement from left to right suggests determination.
 The appearance of the boat escaping the clutches of the spiderweb is
symbolic of the children escaping the snare of the preacher.  The subsidary
contrasts draw you next to the boat and then the water, which through high
contrast lighting is magical.  
	There is a high degree of density in this film.  It is brought about by the
heavy use of contrasting light, accentuated through the use of water and
further highlighted by the spider web, the boat, and the surrounding foilage.
 This shot is a stationary long shot making the cameras proxemic range
public. This use of the high angle looking downward at 45 degrees,
traditionally suggesting fatality, brings out the very opposite as the
children escape the web.  It shows a god like view as if they are being
watched over.  The image is composed on three depth planes; the water in the
background, the boat standing out in the midground against the texture of the
flowing river, and the foreground, consisting of the spiderís web with its
own pattern over the river surrounded on the edges of the frame by the tree
trunk on the far left of the screen and grass blades along the bottom.
	This scenes creative use and exploration of mise en scene is rooted in
German Avante Garde expressionism and delves into surrealist territories.
 These images are far different from any other images in this film, taking on
a persona of their own, and is the transitional point of the film.  At this
point the perspective changes to that of the children.  This scene is
designed to look like that of a childís dream.  This huge spiderweb that is
three times bigger than their boat and the giant frog that is shown later on
in this same sequence of shots is zeroing you in on these childrenís
perspective; everything seen through the simple eyes of a child is large and
potentially threatening.  They are surrounded by a very vivid environment
that lives and breathes.  The river protects them and its brilliance reflects
the dreamstate of their translucent mind, flowing and merging softly like
quieted thought.  As long as they are on the river they are safe from harm.
 This scene is absolutely amazing. 
	The second scene I have chosen is the scene where children stop the boat
down river to sleep in a barn.  The children pull up along the river bank to
a silhouetted house and find a lit window where they hear a woman singing her
child to sleep;
 		"Hush little one, hush / morning soon will light you pillow / 
		   bird will sing form his willow / rest here on my breast"  
 They make their way through the barn and up into the hay loft where they lay
down to sleep under the heavy blanket of the night sky.  John sits up later
in the night to see the Preacher riding on horseback across the horizonĎs
plane.  John and Pearl then return to the boat and head further down river,
their night of solitude interrupted.  
	The majority of this scene takes place in one set-up, the children laying in
the hayloft, shot fading into shot as the night progresses.  This frame is
composed of the loft floor covered in hay taking up the bottom third of the
screen and the foreground, the open hayloft door placed off-center in the mid
to top right of the frameís midground, and the open horizon shown through the
loftdoor in the background giving the illusion of depth.  The lighting again
is high contrast as the loft door is shown through silhouette and the night
sky throws a bright stream of light diagonally through the door frame across
the screen from top right to bottom left.  The children lay behind a stack of
hay placed in the far right center of the frame midground and only their feet
are shown sticking out from behind the pile into the light, showing they are
finally given rest.  The eye is first drawn to the brilliant night sky shown
through the door frame, taking up the top two-thirds of the frame and acting
as a view to the beauty of the starry night sky that lays heavily over the
children like a blanket to keep them safe and secure.
	A long shot with the camera at a neutral, eye level position, the eye is
then drawn along the light cast through the door frame, catching the feet of
the children sticking out and then passes to haystack in the bottom left of
the frame.  This shot is loosely framed but quite dense as your eye is given
so many details to play with; the flat planes of the horizon shown through
the doorway (a frame within a frame), the soft texture of the night sky lit
with a soft glow and smearing into darkness as it recedes upward, the hay in
the floor.  The suggestiveness of the color value brings the metaphor of this
shot further out.  
	As this scene progresses, the crescent moon passes in an arch across the
sky, the light source changes from top-right to top-left with this
progression, fading from shot to shot in a time lapse sequence as the night
turns to early morning. The children in this environment feel secure again.
 The woman singing to her child is reminiscent of the security of their home
and in a larger sense childhood, letting them know that their is no danger
where they will sleep.  They are secure under the blanket of night and are
finally given a moment of solitude.  Then the preacher appears on the horizon
as a silhouette of a tall man riding a horse across the plain (from left to
right) and its bright sky, following the path of the children.  He is an
ominous, dark figure who doesnít relent.  He is the nightmare that interrupts
their sleep and the strange, perverse figure that has grown to represent what
they see as adulthood.
	The last scene I wish to use is the introduction of the preacher to John,
which takes place early in the film.  This scene contains the element of
religion also in its use of mise en scene.  The scene begins with an
establishing shot of the house cast partly in shadow-partly in light, and
moves into John and Pearlís room.  John tells Pearl the story of the rich
king who had a son and a daughter and lived in a castle in Africa.  One day
the king was taken away by "bad men", but before he was taken away he told
his son to kill anyone who tried to steal his gold while he was gone. As he
finishes the story a huge shadow of a manís head wearing a hat appears
through the window eclipsing John.  
	The shot is medium shot at a personal distance of about six feet shot from
the waist-up at a neutral position.  John is placed on the left side of the
frame in a quarter-turn position (facing towards Pearl off-screen), implying
an intimacy and insight into what he is thinking.  John standing in the
foreground with the wall comprising his background, is lit well, but the wall
behind him is dark, except for the castshadow of the windowpane.  This
castshadow is placed in frame-right, offset in the upper two thirds of the
shot.  This window pane is quite interesting because disecting the middle of
it are the window grates, which appear like the figure of the cross. The shot
is divided into two areas, the left and the right screen, taking the shape of
off-centered and slightly overlapping  rectangles.  
	This shot is lacking the spatial depth and density of the other previously
reviewed scenes contain.  It is fairly flat and simple with its texture
pallete, but lit with a high contrast effect, it is quite visually
interesting.  You are first drawn to the figure of the cross and this
dominant contrast then leads you to John. Consisting of a closed form, this
shot is highly stylized (as were the previous shots), the weights of the
visual perfectly counterbalanced, but is not modeled after the proscenium
arch of stage, as were the previous shot.  This shot is a fairly simple shot,
tightly framed on a standard lens with no apparent filters, but contained in
this shot is quite a bit of symbolism.
	  The story which John is telling seems reminiscent of a tale from the
Bible, but this story is also Johnís story.  This is what his father told him
the last time he saw John as he was taken off to jail.  This cross on the
wall represents the strength John is pulling from in his view that his father
was not a bad man.  When taken with the context of the rich kingís story it
shows the battle of good and evil.  As the preacherís shadow slides across
the frame settling in-front of the window, it eclipses the cross, showing
this figure as not that of a holy man.  
	This scene contains two of the films strongest elements,  Johnís fear of
adulthood as well as the religious context which plays a large part in the
literary interpertation of this film.  It best shows the balance between the
many facets of this film and the element of this film I have chosen to
	Night of the Hunter is a brilliant film.  This is easily said, but what is
it that seperates it from other films defining it as a classic?  Many would
watch this film and think nothing of it, being it is told from a naive
perspective.  As an adult floating down the river you would be more concerned
with if you were going to get to your destination not even noticing frogs and
spider webs and rabbits and owls because your perspective as an adult is held
up in this grand illusion.  An adult doesnít pay attention to these details,
see them blown out of proportion, doesn't feel that fear of the unknown.
 This is where this film becomes brilliant.  Through the use of camera work
you are forced to see these details and feel these emotional resonance that
you don't normally feel as an adult. It gives you a reminder of what youth is
like.  It is a very powerful use of the concept of mise en scene.  
	"Night of the Hunter" is constructed on three levels.  The first level of
the film is a basic thriller set up very theatrically.  The second level
consists of the sexual and religious overtones which are evident in the
script.  The third level of this filmís construction, its subtext dealing
with the childís fear of adulthood, is its most powerful element brought out
through the use of mise en scene.  The literary concepts which are written
into the script, such as the guilt of the wife on her deathbed, would still
be in the script if directed by someone else, but the film would have
probably ended up as a straight thriller.  It would have never had the
qualities this film holds.  The script was probably written as directly as
"kids going down a river in a boat to escape the evil preacher" "Preacher
comes stalking kids behind the settng sun".  This is clever but doesnít
resonate with the perspective that the film embodies.  This perspective is
brought out in the interesting shooting pattern this film adopts.  This film
starts outside and then goes inside (to what are obviously soundstage sets),
moving the film into an internalized structure of unreality.
	You canít analyze this film from a literal perspective.  It is not a literal
film.  Some would consider it an exploitation film.  It is an exploitation
script and concept, but not an exploitation film.  It is a fantasy film
dealing more in illusions, dreams, and innocence than it is about the
perversions of being an adult.  Yes, the adults are shown as being perverted,
but they are more of a prop to slide you into the world of these children.
 Why do they have these shots; the crazy shaky steadicam helicopter shot,
this shot of the guy of the guy standing against the tree looking at the kids
through the window irising in all the way around him past him down into the
window?  This is not done for a neat effect.  The director is zeroing you in
on these childrenís perspective. From a childís perspective you donít see an
entire house, you don't see the whole roof of the house. You would see a
figure like the preachers as overbearing and overpowering. 
	Loughton wants you to really have an emotional resonace with these children.
He wants you to get the feeling of fear, the feeling of the overpowering
authority of this man dressed in black with this penis knife that is
flickering on.  The fear of this boy who has lost his father figure and along
comes this loud boisterous, overtly sexual "man of god" carrying his phallic
knife; and this is what he is supposed to look up to?  The boy becomes
fearful of the father figure relationship, making you wonder about Charles
Loughtonís own upbringing. 
	This is why the woman at the end of the film, played by Lillian Gish, is so
important. She addresses the second and third level of this film
simultaneously.  Within the second level dealing with religious
interpretations, she brings about the redefinition of religion.  She is the
difference between literalizing god and living the lessons of God. Dealing
with the third level of the boyís fear, she is the character that brings
these children stability giving them a positive role model.  She is the one
adult figure that these children can trust.  She marches along with them just
like she is one of them.  She understands their perspective.  That is why she
believes them and through her nuturing, Johnís fears of adulthood subside.  
	Loughtonís cinematographer Stanly Cortez, who shot the Magnificent Ambersons
and most of the Samuel Fueller films, is considered one of the greatest
cameraman of the studio era films and his structure of mise en scene in
"Night of the Hunter" is one of his crowning achievements. This was the only
film Charles Laughton ever made due to its critical and commercial failure
upon release, but his strong background in theater, where you are dealing
with the concepts of space and depth, gave he and Cortezís amazing skills a
broad pallete to pull from, strongly characterizing their use of mise en
	There are some very interesting dynamics and tones suggested through the use
of mise en scene. The scene in the room where the preacher kills the wife
where there is no roof, but there is only shadow, with the room taking on the
shape of the church steeple approaches the religious content.  The scene in
the courtroom where the father is awaiting his sentence, standing before the
judge under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as if being persecuted is
complimentary to the film as a thriller.  The image of the mother floating
underwater with her throat slit is horryifyingly beautiful.  I did not
explore these images in this essay as main points being they did not pertain
directly to the element and theme I have chosen to cover, but I feel I should
mention them in passing.  These images are symbolic to the other levels of
the story and could alone, constitute another ten page critque.
	If you take mise en scene to the extreme this film is theater. It is a very
careful use of angles, coloring, shadowing, and perspective explored through
a formalist structure where everything needed is contained in the shot and
all aspects are metaphorical.  The mise en scene beautifully reflects the
persepective of the film and what you are supposed to be associating it with.
 You look at what this film is really about compared to what it presents to
you.  Why someone who didnít understand this film might be stuck with its
imagery floating in his head for many years following, and why would that be?
	It is because of the way it is constructed. It is odd and difficult, and its
constructs are not seamless, but through its use of mise en scene it is made
absolutely brilliant.  It is a wonderful example of a filmís exploration of
subject matter that does not fit social norms through metaphors.  And in a
larger context, it is an example of the power of the medium of film as an
accessible language unto itself.

E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at

I want to go back to the home base now.