Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Night of the Hunter - A Biography of a Film

The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film
by Jeffrey Couchman
Northwestern University Press

Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1954), an adaptation of Davis Grubb's 1953 novel, is many things: a fractured fairy tale, an American gothic story, a twisted song, an homage to silent films, a 20th century re-envisioning of William Blake's Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence and a pseudo-noir.

Couchman's book is not just a love letter to the film and its creators, nor is it a personal perspective on the film. However, if you think NOTH is a masterpiece, the book will only justify your thoughts by laying out the many reasons why it is so. Couchman's book is a soup-to-nuts look at all of the elements that went into creating this classic. He takes us through every phase of the process including the writing of the novel, Laughton's vision of the movie, Grubb's drawings and James Agee's screen adaptation.

Grubb's novel, the source of the story, is spoken about constantly throughout the text  but you don't have to be familiar with the novel to follow along. A general understanding of the film is all you really need.

I'm sure this book is better suited to the serious film student but what a treat it would be to a classic movie lover too? The rich information provided by the book makes the movie experience into a four-course meal instead of just a dessert. I would recommend this book to three different kinds of people. 1) A Film Student 2) Fan of The Night of the Hunter 3) Serious Classic Film Buff who wants to advance his or her knowledge of film.

Couchman delivers wonderful observations and this book is chockful of great information. Here are a few tidbits I'd like to share:

On the infamous scene of Willa (Shelley Winters or at least a wax dummy of her), floating underwater, with her throat slit. "The cinematic fakery resulted in images that no one who has seen the film is likely to froget. A slow pan along waving reeds picks up Willa, bound in the car, her hair flowing as though with a life of its own. In many ways, the scene defines The Night of the Hunter. It is at once realistic and surreal, grim and poetic. Everything about it is a contradiction. The car alone is a shocking, industrial intrusion in a natural realm. The greater intrustion, though, is Willa's body, a serene picture of violent death, a floating apparition weighted to the river bottom." pg 111
Novel versus Film: "[Grubb's novel] satisfies readers expectations. The film thwarts expectations at every turn." - pg 206
On the differing acting styles of Mitchum and Gish: "The choices Laughton made reveal how consciously he sought a stylized, exaggerated performance from Mitchum and a naturalistic unadorned performance from Gish. Each style of acting becomes a code in itself" Mitchum's affected manner signals Preacher's deceitful nature, and Gish's straightforward approach identifies Rachel as direct and honest" - pg 174

If you are a wimpy classic film fan who just likes to watch movies but not use your preicous brain cells to actually think about the films you've seen, then you are not tough enough to handle this book. For all other classic movie buffs, I throw down the gauntlet and challenge you to read this. What will separate the weak from the strong is the desire and ability amongst classic film fans to acquire knowledge, to analyze and think and to earnestly put this knowledge to good use. Are you up for it?
Thank you to Northwestern University Press for sending me this book to review! And so sorry it took me so long to get to it. :-)


  1. I will definitely have to read The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. Night of the Hunter is my favourite Mitchum film of all time, one of my favourite horror movies (yes, I count it as a horror movie), and one of my favourite films of all time, period. This book is definitely a must read for me!

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. Along those lines, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder by David Thompson is also recommended.


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