Few screen actors have ever been so zestfully hammy, so unrestrainedly, gusto-grabbingly over-the-top as Charles Laughton. He could be subtle when he felt the occasion demanded it, but he far preferred to go after a role like a pit bull goes after a mailman's ankle. Without exception, his performances were the most interesting aspect of every picture he appeared in (in Witness for the Prosecution, he even managed to steal the picture out from under Marlene Dietrich, a feat it's hard to imagine anybody else pulling off). His show-stopping antics drove many of his co-stars and directors insane, but audiences adored him.
When Laughton turned to directing, he brought the same ferocity to it that he had to acting, with results that were arguably even more impressive. The Night of the Hunter(1955) is a marvelous fever dream of a movie, a boldly stylized thriller that looks and sounds like nothing else before or since.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a preacher whose down-home manners and lazy charm mask a perverse, truly malignant soul. When he comes to a small Southern town populated by yokels who all seem to have stumbled out of a Norman Rockwell canvas, he imagines there's no one to stop him from marrying the lovely Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), bumping her off and claiming the fortune her late husband left behind. Of course, Powell's not counting on the resistance he faces from Willa's offspring, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruceher), two kids who pack a surprising amount of cunning and determination into their little bodies.
Employing the magnificently strange, expressionistic cinematography of Stanley Cortez and a script credited to James Agee (although Laughton hated Agee's work and allegedly handled rewrites himself), Laughton achieves a film of uncanny power. But it's those killer performances that really stick with you: Mitchum, of course, the kids (both of whom retired from acting shortly after the film) and even Winters. After seeing this picture, you'll never look at the braying old broad from The Poseidon Adventure the same way again.
Certain aspects of the film's story have penetrated the popular imagination, such as Mitchum's tattoos bearing the word LOVE across the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the other, a bit that has been ripped off, paid homage to and parodied by everybody from The Simpsons to Spike Lee to Springsteen. But while many people are familiar with some of the film's elements through modern appropriations, far fewer are aware of the source material. The Night of the Hunter is such a singularly odd film that its influence on the films that followed is difficult to determine. The cinematography, dialogue and acting are all so richly eccentric that it's a miracle they work so well; what sensible modern director would risk disaster by trying to emulate them?
But Laughton was not a sensible man, and The Night of the Hunterwas a critical and commercial disaster in its day, so much so that Laughton never directed again. It brings to mind the career of Orson Welles, another king-size, noisy, maverick director who made a masterful debut, bombed big and was promptly slapped down by Hollywood. While Welles' story is one that film majors cry themselves to sleep thinking about, Laughton's is arguably even sadder. Welles at least was allowed to make dozens more pictures, even if he never again equaled Citizen Kane. Laughton never stepped behind the camera again and had to settle for being one of the most fascinating actors of all time. The Night of the Hunter screens at UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus N W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 N 9 p.m. $3-$5.