Season 1 of Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at the Film Experience ends tonight, and Nathaniel picked a doozy of a picture to wrap things up: The Night of the Hunter, the only feature directed by Charles Laughton, and arguably the finest work in the career of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, in a career including Orson Welles’s sophomore effort The Magnificent Ambersons, and the one-two Sam Fuller punch of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, just so we all understand what an overweening thing I’ve just claimed on his behalf.
The film is a marvelous thriller, featuring Robert Mitchum’s best performance as a murderous conman posing as a preacher, and Shelley Winters’s best as the addled woman who falls for his trickery (though I should mention that I’m not the world’s biggest Winters fan), and Lillian Gish’s… not-best performance, but let’s not let anything sour the movie. A grim bedtime story, a nightmare fairy tale for adults, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most beautiful, haunting, even terrifying movies of the ’50s.
But we’re here, if I recall aright, to pick my favorite shot. There are a great many to choose from. A great many. As I said, though, my preferred reading of the film is as the scary bedtime story, and so I narrowed my choice to those images that best evoke the “once upon a time”, not quite real sense evoked by that phrase, “bedtime story”. And here it is:
The young protagonists, in their journey away from Mitchum’s all-encompassing evil, have fled down the river, filmed with delightfully Impressionist touches, of which my favorite must be the kindly light in the window of this isolated house, surrounded by a glow that suggests heaven itself is inside. It’s not; it’s just a waystation where the children can sleep for one single night, but the unearthly beauty of the farm is at least in part a promise that things are going to get better. At any rate, in a litany of gorgeous images that mark the river voyage, this is the one I love the most.
A close second is the shot of the preacher, menacing even in the distance, that ultimately drives the children away from this temporary shelter and onward toward their ultimate sanctuary.