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Lillian Gish once said, “I’ve never been in style, so I can never go out of style.” The silent-screen legend was being modest, but she was clearly on to something—something that Charles Laughton grasped when he cast her as the good to Robert Mitchum’s evil in his oddball directorial opus, The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Laughton’s vision of a movie—and a vision it surely is—is often cited for the way it turns up its nose at genre conventions, for the way it crouches in the shadowy space between fairy tale and southern gothic. But it’s also a hymn to silent cinema. Laughton reportedly spent hours upon hours studying the films of D. W. Griffith in preparation for the shoot; he wanted to restore to contemporary movies the look and feel of the vanished pre-sound era. Along those lines, there’s an overdetermined stylization to some of the performances (Mitchum’s outstretched Frankenstein arms and devilishly bugged eyes come to mind), but it’s Gish, who was made famous by Griffith in such melodramas as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), who seals the deal: her very presence makes the movie seem like a transmission from an earlier time.
Appropriately for such an ethereal film, The Night of the Hunter begins with an expansive shot of the starry night sky, with Gish’s gently wizened, grandmotherly face superimposed on it, a beacon from the heavens. A tone of grace has already been set by the opening credits, courtesy of a simple lullaby sung by a children’s chorus, and Gish embodies the goodness that portends. With her words of biblical wisdom, preached to a gaggle of children’s floating heads (“Blessed are the pure of heart,” “Judge not lest ye be judged,” “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing”), Gish’s Miss Cooper opens the film with a tremulous benevolence—yet there’s also something sinister here, a sense that she’s providing mercy for all the world’s wickedness, into which we’re about to be plunged. By virtue of her presence at the film’s opening and closing, she’s not just a symbol of saving grace; she’s the storyteller. And we know that all good stories have a dark side, especially fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Laughton once described The Night of the Hunter as “a nightmarish Mother Goose story,” and Gish is clearly its Mother Goose.
She’s also Mother Earth: Miss Cooper turns out to be a no-nonsense matriarch whose bustling home is a haven for lost children and the orphans of many storms, because, as she famously states, “It’s a hard world for little things.” Making it particularly hard for little John and Pearl is their greedy, murdering stepfather, Harry Powell (Mitchum), who has already violently done away with their mother (Shelley Winters) as part of his plan to abscond with her late first husband’s buried treasure. The innocents, having escaped and floated downriver, have come under Miss Cooper’s protection, and though the diminutive Gish seems no match for Mitchum’s strapping scoundrel, Laughton turns her into one of cinema’s most unlikely heroes. Few movie images are more enthralling than that of the sixty-one-year-old Gish, dwarfed by her own shotgun, staring dead-eyed down the barrel and warding off the killer at close range.
It’s especially satisfying to witness Gish’s character’s resourcefulness following all the actress’s years of suffering in silence: she was often an extravagant victim in Griffith’s films (and in some of her later films for MGM, such as Victor Sjöstrom’s The Scarlet Letter and The Wind). Her Miss Cooper, however, is indomitable, “a strong tree with branches for many birds,” as she says at one point. The same could be said of Gish, who would live for almost forty more years, dying in 1993 at ninety-nine. Actor and character were both forces to be reckoned with—something that Mitchum’s Harry Powell slowly comes to realize in this clip. Watch how Gish’s eyes distrustfully look this wolf in sheep’s clothing up and down. He may pride himself on his smooth talking, but she’s on to him from the get-go.