Author: Chris Temple Publisher: The NEURAL SURFER Publication date: September 1997
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From: firstname.lastname@example.org "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 sleep; "Once upon a time there was a pretty fly / had a pretty wife who had pretty flies/ 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 explore. 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 scene. 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.
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I want to go back to the home base now.