by Mark Satola
TOWARD THE END of production, the cast and crew of the remarkable 1955 film The Night of the Hunter gathered for a group portrait. Director Charles Laughton stands at the center of the crowd of actors and technicians, an expression of pure happiness lighting up his large, fleshy visage (“I have a face like the behind of an elephant,” he is reported to once have said). His colleagues are no less beatific in their demeanor. Even Robert Mitchum, already a certified bad boy in Hollywood, looks like a gleeful kid, grinning as he stands next to the venerable Lillian Gish, who seems to be whooping with laughter.
Years later, Laughton recalled the days spent working on his only directorial feature as the happiest experience of his life. The Night of the Hunter certainly is the product of one of the happiest confluences of perfect circumstances to occur in Hollywood, which all too often is the capital city of compromised intentions.
The felicity that surrounded the movie shimmered into view again in July 1974, when a youngish fellow named Robert Gitt, then technical officer at the American Film Institute, visited Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, to retrieve still photos, letters and other objets de production relating to The Night of the Hunter, and carry them back to Washington, D.C., where they would become part of AFI’s collection, then housed on the top floor of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Gitt had been enthralled with Laughton’s strange and frightening fairy tale since his late teens, when he first saw it on television in his hometown of Baltimore.
“I was quite taken with it from the start,” Gitt says of the first time he saw Hunter. “My parents were both fans of Lillian Gish from her silent film days, and when they saw a TV Guide listing that The Night of the Hunter was going to be shown on local TV, they were very interested in seeing it. It turned out to be a very gripping and very exciting movie with an unusual technique. I’ve liked it ever since.”
While at Lanchester’s home, Gitt was amazed to learn that she was also in possession of the film’s actual rushes — “eighteen cardboard boxes, filled with many metal cans of film,” he recalls — and that she was eager to donate them to the AFI film school in Los Angeles, where they might be studied by young filmmakers.
The product of one of the most unusual on-set procedures ever, the rushes of The Night of the Hunter proved to be a unique treasure. In bringing to the screen Davis Grubb’s lyrical novel about two children pursued by a psychopathic preacher (Mitchum) in search of hidden money, Laughton sought to create a working environment in which cast and crew could inhabit Grubb’s dreamlike world. Toward that end, Laughton sought to minimize the mechanics of filmmaking: he rarely called “cut,” and between takes kept the cameras rolling. This meant, of course, that he was caught on sound film, shaping his cast’s performances and guiding the film to the place he always saw it going.
The boxes traveled between the east and west coasts for the next 20 years. At one point, while they were at the AFI school in Los Angeles, Gitt was “horrified” to learn that, so far from studying the footage, “students were starting to cut them up and use them as leader.” Eventually, both the rushes and Gitt came to rest at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (where Gitt is currently preservation officer), and he began the arduous task of bringing the 80,000 feet of takes into sensible form. About five hours of the original safety stock was copied onto new acetate, and then distilled to about two-and-a-half hours.
The resulting document, “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter,” presents the crafting of the scenes in the order in which they would ultimately appear in the film, creating a sort of meta-film that exists behind Laughton’s finished product.
“The Night of the Hunter was the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s,” Gitt says. “Laughton and [the movie’s screenwriter James] Agee are known to have screened a number of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in preparation for this project. You can see the influence of D.W. Griffith in some of the countryside scenes. They must have also screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the work of F. W. Murnau; the influence of German expressionism is so strong here.”
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 15, 2003.