THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton, 1955)
A horror film cross-bred with a fairy tale and a religious dialectic, filtered through a baroque, Southern Gothic sensibility. It's transfixing, it's gut-wrenching and it's astounding.
With 'Love' tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and 'Hate' on the other, preacher Robert Mitchum strides out of prison and straight into his executed cell-mate's home in Depression-era rural America. With his eager piety, sinister-smouldering hang-dog expression and bewitching, stentorian renditions of staples like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", he seduces the widow (and the township) in no time. But it's the children that hold the vital information he's after (the money's hiding place) and they won't give in quite as easily. They embark upon a moonlit downriver flight as ethereal and disturbingly beautiful as any sequence in cinema.
James Agee based his script on a novel by Davis Grubb and was reportedly quite faithful to it. Charles Laughton summarised it as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale" - which it is - but this doesn't account for its questioning, undermining and odd reaffirming of Christian faith and fanaticism. While the 'Reverend' symbolises the danger of faith allowed to run unchecked, the eventual saviour proves heroic precisely because she won't allow any outsider or institution to stand between her and her belief. In a sense, she's similarly intimidating in that her ferocity and conviction is equal to the Reverend's (and potentially just as destructive, if founded on false belief). It isn't her 'truer' Christianity that distinguishes her from him - it's just as much her weapon as his. The key difference between them is that she interprets faith as selflessness and humanism, whereas he calls on a transcendent force to justify his greed and bloodlust.
The film's critical and commercial failure ensured that Laughton would never direct again. But no other man with a single directorial credit to his name has invested his characters and visuals with such boldness, such mystery and intensity.
Few screen performances are as indelible (and - if you're into that sort of thing - absurdly sexy) as Mitchum's deranged, monstrous Reverend. As the abiding bedrock of Christian virtue, Lillian Gish strikes a fierce, vivid and piercingly human pitch. And the children - Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce - are hypnotic.