The Moviegoer, a biweekly online column published by the Library of America, has been a locus of terrific writing about classic literature-inspired films since it launched in February. Curated by film critic Michael Sragow, the column features a roster of prominent writers and critics. This week, novelist and critic Francine Prose explores actor Charles Laughton’s chilling 1955 masterwork The Night of the Hunter. Adapted from Davis Grubb’s best-selling 1953 novel of the same title, the film’s screenplay was written by James Agee and came to life through Stanley Cortez’s emotive black-and-white photography to tell the story of the villainous traveling preacher Harry Powell, unforgettably played by Robert Mitchum.
“If we were to measure a film’s achievement purely on the basis of the depth and the indelibility with which it has engraved an image (or images) on our minds,” Prose begins her analysis, “the winner might well be Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.” For Prose, some of the film’s more impactful images include the vision of the tattooed letters L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E, “enacting their grim wrestling match” on Mitchum’s knuckles, and the biblically inspired scene of the film’s children, John and Pearl, “escaping down the river to safety beneath the enormous dark sky, twinkling with starry pinpoints of light.”
The vision of an ethereally disheveled Shelley Winters (who plays Willa Harper) trapped at the bottom of a river, Prose says, citing Jeffrey Couchman’s 2009 book The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, took two days to film and involved a wax dummy of its model. Couchman’s book includes further behind-the-scenes insights, Prose says—including episodes like Laughton’s clashes with Agee over his 287-page script, as well as lighter fare, such as a sampling of drawings made by Grubb to illustrate his haunting vision for the story. Referencing Couchman’s argument that Laughton’s decision to shoot the film in black and white drew from the influence on him of German expressionism and silent cinema, Prose convincingly notes that, “in any case, having seen the film, we are utterly unable to imagine it in color. This is partly because the clear and sharp division between black and white mirrors the clarity and the extremity of the film’s divisions between good and evil.”
Read the article in full over at the Moviegoer.