On the drive to campus this morning, I read Tara parts of Michael Dirda’s review of Jeffrey Couchman’s new study, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. The film “failed miserably when it opened in 1955,” writes Dirda. “But since then it has come to be recognized as one of American cinema’s greater masterpieces.” Tara turned her nose up at that a little, and then showed even more incredulity when Dirda noted that the famed French film journal Cahiers du Cinema ranked The Night of the Hunter the “second most beautiful film of all time (after Citizen Kane and just above The Rules of the Game.)” (That full list is here, in French.)
Tara’s verdict on the film: “Interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying.”
I’m more generous toward the movie — engaged not just by its odd mix of religion and sensuality, of innocence and near-demonic evil, but also by its unique stylistic approach. What stands out best to me isn’t the good versus evil plot — sometimes a little corny, a little over-the-top, a little too black-and-white — but that gorgeous cinematography, also black-and-white, of course, but more richly toned. Dirda too comments on the
quality of light that makes each scene of the movie so striking: the sharp clarity of the open-air picnic, the hideous chiaroscuro of a torch-lit revival meeting, the swirling mist that gathers outside the ice cream parlor when the now spiritually “clean” Willa says goodnight, the soft moon shining through a window into the altarlike bedroom, the bright stars speckling the night sky as the children escape down the river.
I would certainly add to that list the haunting image of a woman’s corpse floating underwater, her hair fanning out, the drifting stillness. It’s the lyricism of such images that stands out and helps to elevate the film above others. I don’t know that I agree with Dirda that the film is “endlessly rewatchable,” but it’s a fine and memorable movie for sure, and I’m intrigued to find out more about its making from the new book.