Wednesday October 14th, marked the 122nd anniversary of the birth of the motion picture legend, Lillian Gish, the famed actress who was eminently popular during the silent era, and later became known as the “First Lady Of American Cinema”.
Lillian Gish was one of Hollywood’s greatest assets during the silent era of cinema, and worked with D.W Griffith, the prolific director who helped establish motion pictures. Together they produced an array of cinematic masterpieces, which include, The Birth Of A Nation, Broken Blossoms and Orphans Of The Storm, among other notable classics.
By the time talking pictures were fully established in Hollywood, Lillian’s career was in decline. With her status slowly descending, Gish took a long hiatus away from filming and mainly focused on stage acting.
On her return to motion pictures, Lillian Gish was cast in more notable productions, including, Duel In The Sun, where she was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Night Of The Hunter, which is her most eminent film from this decade.
The Night Of The Hunter may not have been triumphant on it’s initial release, but many years later it is now considered culturally significant. Not only is the film distinguished for it’s expressionistic style and silent era sets, it also marked the only directorial debut of Charles Laughton, the acclaimed actor who tried his hands in the directing medium for the first time for the picture, but was dispirited with the whole aspect when the film was largely panned by audiences.
For years Charles Laughton had been yearning for a career change as a director. The perfect opportunity came to the fore when producer, Paul Gregory was intrigued by the novel The Night Of The Hunter by Davis Grubb, and decided to adapt it for the screen with his close friend Charles Laughton as director. Laughton agreed to take on the task, and shortly after preparations began.
Both the novel and film are based on the true story of Harry Powers, the real life serial killer who faced execution in 1932, following the murders of two widows and three children. It was adapted to the screen by James Agee and Charles Laughton, who focused his directing on the harsh, angular look of German Expressionist films of the 1920’s.
From the moment the immaculate presence of Lillian Gish talking to her children under a night time glow of proliferating stars is spotlighted across the screen in the films opening sequence, we get swept into the world of one of cinema’s most sinister villains, Reverend Harry Powell ( Robert Mitchum ) the corrupt preacher who after being released from prison travels to a small town situated on the Ohio River to plant his fraudulent charms on Willa ( Shelley Winters ) the widow of the executed man Ben Harper, and her two children, John and Pearl, in order to try and attain the hidden money that was secretly given to John by Ben shortly before his execution.
Willa is gullible, and marries Harry in the belief that he will show her Gods light, but when she discovers that the marriage was only for the money, Harry murders Willa, and sets of after the children, who escape by fleeing down the river, where they are encountered by Rachel Cooper ( Lillian Gish ) the guardian angel who cares for stray children in her congenial sanctuary.
The Night Of The Hunter is the true definition of movie making to perfection. It’s a cinematic masterpiece that features three of Hollywood’s most celebrated stars, Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters in a frightening tale of evil prophets and the fragility of young children.
Robert Mitchum portrays the role of Reverend Harry Powell, the malicious preacher who would do anything for money, even if it means charming the townsfolk with his fake persona so he can marry Willa in the hopes of attaining a fortune. Of course things don’t go to plan for Powell. John immediately witnesses the deceitful attitude in this man of God who has just unexpectedly arrived in town. He can sense that Harry only wants his mother so he can obtain the money, but John who promised his father before the execution that he will never reveal where the money is hidden remains adamant in keeping the mysterious fortune a secret.
This was the perfect role for Robert Mitchum, who was known as a veteran of the Film Noir Genre. Less than ten years earlier, Mitchum had attained critical acclaim for Out Of The Past, a picture that had him escaping his mysterious past by hiding out as a small town gas pumper, Jeff Bailey, who despite of his former years is really an amiable character. The Night Of The Hunter was an entirely different part for Mitchum. Instead of playing a friendly natured person, Mitchum sublimated his talents into portraying a role of a complex character that inhabits many layers of evil.
Lillian Gish is commendable in her role as Rachel Cooper, the tough but amicable carer for stray and unwanted children. With the spice that Mitchum brings to his character, Lillian delivers the sugar, making the terrifying world for the two young children a much sweeter society to live in. The scenes between Lillian Gish and the children are priceless and poignant, that they almost tell a story in itself.
The film is graced with superb cinematography and expressionistic settings that present splashes of a gloomy fairytale in a land of unpleasant destruction and hatred. It is these unique visuals that make The Night Of The Hunter such a magical motion picture abounded with atmospheric settings, nostalgic lullaby music and memorable haunting moments that cements this as an unforgettable classic.
Lillian Gish feared that Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum might be undercutting Powell’s evil. Laughton explained to her, half joking, that he didn’t want to ruin Mitchum’s future career by pushing him to play total evil, although the touches of humor in the character actually serve to play up the preacher’s essentially ludicrous and haywire psychology. And Mitchum’s borderline buffoonery makes the children’s escape and eventual triumph over him more plausible.
The underwater shot of Shelley Winters‘ corpse in the Ford was the last one filmed. It was so convincing to actor Don Beddoe when he saw the finished film that he thought it was Winters holding her breath, not a dummy.
The sequence with Preacher riding a horse in the distance was actually a little person on a pony, filmed in false perspective.
Rachel Cooper: “I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this world and I know it too.”
Rachel Cooper: “You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide.”
Rachel Cooper: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.”
Harry Powell: “[when he notices John staring at the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles] Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other. Now watch ’em! Old brother left hand, left hand he’s a fighting, and it looks like love’s a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love’s a winning! Yessirree! It’s love that’s won, and old left hand hate is down for the count.”
Harry Powell: “Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin’.”
Rachel Cooper: “It’s a hard world for little things.”
Robert Mitchum: Born Robert Charles Durman Mitchum on August 6th, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Died: July 1st, 1997 in Santa Barbara, California. Aged 79. Cause of death: Lung Cancer.
Lillian Gish: Born Lillian Diana Gish on October 14th, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. Died: February 27th, 1993 in New York. Aged 99. Cause of death: Heart failure.
Shelley Winters: Born Shirley Schrift on August 18th, 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri. Died: January 14th, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. Aged 85. Cause of death: Heart failure.