A Commercial Failure, an Expressionist Masterpiece

Contributor John Maku presents a brief showcase of the expressionist style and mood of Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter.

Perhaps one of the most masterful one-hit wonders in film history, The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton and released in 1955. And it is a film to behold for its artistic style and expression. The screenplay was based on a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb. However, for all of its mastery over tone and mood, the film was a commercial failure upon release and actor Charles Laughton never to directed again. Over the years, it’s been brought into the public eye and given another shot by film critics and cinephiles alike.

Night of the hunter - spiderweb

The film itself is something of a film noir, although its set against a more pastoral backdrop. However, its true potential is realized through the use of expressionism, to evoke mood and tone. It’s easy to understand because Laughton was heavily inspired by 1920s German expressionism when making the film. The famous example of this influence comes in the riverboat sequence, where Laughton made creative use of foreground details, like frogs and spider webs, along with a beautiful soundtrack to evoke a serene mood—especially because it happens right after a thrilling chase scene.

The other resounding appeal of the film is the performance of actor Robert Mitchum as the serial killer and charlatan preacher Harry Powell. In both the film and the novel, the character of Powell was inspired by a real serial killer named Harry Powers. Mitchum’s performance as Powell is unforgettable, and one can detect an aspect of the big bad wolf in his portrayal and characterization, a monster hunting two young children. In this way, The Night of the Hunter borrows elements from traditional fairy tales. It becomes a story of light and dark, good and evil, and remains interesting given its expressionist take on the trope.

the-night-of-the-hunter - Shadow

The fairy tale aspects are further showcased by the film’s creative use of light and shadows. As if Powell’s character wasn’t thrilling enough, there are moments where he becomes merely a shadowy figure, highlighting his evil and hateful side. This duality—the seemingly caring yet false preacher and the shadowy figure of death—is reinforced by the tattoos on his fingers, with the letters LOVE on his right-hand fingers, and HATE on his left. It also serves as yet another example of just how the film uses light and shadows, as with other classic noir films, to evokea sense of mystery, mood, and danger.

The Night of the hunter - LOVE

If any film was to prove that ratings and commercial reception aren’t everything, it would be The Night of the Hunter. It’s truly a masterpiece of expressionist and stylistic filmmaking. It bends genres, influenced later filmmakers, and played against type for Mitchum and Laughton at the time.

John Maku is a senior at DePaul University studying Cinema/Media Studies and History. This winter he is the Editorial Intern at Facets.

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