The Night of the Hunter is the first and only film directed by stage actor/director Charles Laughton. It follows Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who goes down the Ohio river murdering widow’s and taking their money. He comes upon his next victim Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her two children John and Pearl, but finds that they are harder to trick than his previous victims. The children hold the secret to their dead father’s stash of money, and the film’s main focus is the chase that Powell gives in search of that money. Upon its release it was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences, and subsequently Laughton was never given the chance to direct for a studio again. He died in 1962, but had he lived long enough to see the film’s reputation grow throughout the years he would almost certainly be given another chance to direct.
In the realm of failures the film has some good company. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) received mixed reviews and didn’t gain as much box-office attention as Capra was accustomed to, and has since become one of the most iconic holiday films ever. Citizen Kane (1941), despite being nominated for nine Oscars and winning one, was still booed at the ceremonies—largely due to pressure by Hearst—and failed to make a profit on its original theatrical run, but has since been christened the greatest movie of all time™. Not to mention the dozens of other movies that went on to become cult classics after failing horribly in their initial openings.
But the reasons for The Night of the Hunter‘s original failure are somewhat of a mystery to me. Part of it might have to do with a disconnect between audience expectations for a traditional narrative, and Laughton’s desire to create a “contemplative” film. What this tells us is that critics, audiences, studio executives, and even you and I might not know a good film when we see one, or that we might let our preconceived notions blind us to a new experience.
In the case of The Night of the Hunter I can’t claim to know what audiences were expecting when they walked into the theater because I wasn’t alive until decades later, but what I can see is the trailer:
The original trailer is exciting. It has blaring horn music and climactic action sequences; it has a menacing evil figure and Lillian Gish holding a fucking shotgun while sitting in a rocking chair. All of that is in the final movie, but what the trailer doesn’t show is the contemplative minutes between the action. The trailer shows a torch-and-pitchfork mob walking zombie-like down the road to presumably get the Reverend Harry Powell, but what it doesn’t show is that that mob is an afterthought rather than a climax in the film, and Laughton never seems interested in following where the mob goes, instead he shifts the focus back to the children on a quiet Christmas morning.
In the full film, for every near miss between Powell and the children there is an extended period of floating and meandering. There is suspense, but there is much more than that. So while the trailer is an accurate representation of the film’s genre, it fails to convey the tone that Laughton sets throughout the film. When the film’s presentation doesn’t align with the trailer then usually it can be called a marketing mistake and not something that is inherently wrong with the film itself.
For that reason The Night of the Hunter might have been doomed at the outset for being ahead of its time in technique and narration, but still being marketed as a standard studio film. Innovative narrative techniques are something that we as post-modern superviewers have become accustomed to, but at the time it was largely unheard of for a “contemplative” film to come from within the Hollywood studio machine, and thus audiences left more confused than enlightened. The same backlash would occur now if the next James Bond movie had a trailer full of explosions but turned out to be a slapstick buddy comedy starring Daniel Craig and Mr. Bean and was directed by Judd Apatow. Or people would embrace it ironically and it would make a fortune.
So while audiences didn’t warm up to The Night of the Hunter, and it fell too far under the radar to be considered revolutionary or to cause an immediate effect in Hollywood, it still contributed in its own way to an evolution. With each passing year its reputation grew and was seen by more and more future directors and writers, and in that respect it helped mold a style that was prevalent in the new Hollywood of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is impossible to view a Terrence Malick film and deny the influence that Laughton had, especially during the scene where John and Pearl are floating down the river. Laughton even has shots of turtles and trees that come out of nowhere!
The Night of the Hunter is in part an example of why certain films can’t be judged wholly until there is a period of separation where their context can be fully seen. It seems that there are numerous films that are either poorly received or not received at all that later go on to be heralded as some of the best films of all time. Why some films require that period to become successful (i.e. The Rules of the Game (1939) and others don’t (i.e. La Grande Illusion (1937)) is confusing and the answer could very well be an arbitrary way to explain the randomness of success in the film industry.