(Article updated: March 2008)
Starting here, I'll be posting short reviews about items related to "The Night of the Hunter", and I will start with a book which is a treat for all lovers of the film. Stay tuned for updates and future posts!
Title: Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of Night of the Hunter
Author: Preston Neal Jones
Published by: Limelight Editions, 2002
Everything you ever wanted to know about "The Night of the Hunter", or nearly, can be found in the 400 pages of this book. It thoroughly covers the successive stages of the making of the film, from the preparatory work to its aftermath. The book presents a series of interviews -deftly weaved in chronological order- with members of cast and crew, among them: actors Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Don Beddoe, Producer Paul Gregory, film photographer Stanley Cortez, art director Hyliard Brown, second unit director Terry Sanders, editor Robert Golden and writer Davis Grubb.
Davis Grubb's brother Louis, composer Walter Schumman's widow Sonya, and actor William Phipps, a good friend of Laughton and Mitchum, share reminiscences which provide further insight. The author has also sourced himself well in previous bibliography and multitude of archival sources. Apart from that, we find there fascinating graphic material, such as stills from the film, on-the-set snapshots, layouts ad preparatory drawings, illustrations et alia...
From this Kaleidoscopic presentation, we are close to getting the whole picture. All testimonials are presented in a way which doesn't interfere with the reader's own judgement, and the information uncovered brings a number of interesting news about the film and, in some stances, helps debunk some false myths about it.
For instance, the script has been traditionally attributed to James Agee, but he just produced a first script, the final draft being by Laughton, who opted, nonetheless, to give credit to Agee, who sadly died before the film was finished. This is no speculation, as proved by the abundant communication (written, verbal, graphic) between writer Davis Grubb and director Laughton, which shows that the director didn't limit himself to visualize someone else's words, but strived to gain further understanding in order to be able to give his best to his own personal rendering of the novel.
Also, it has been so far commonly assumed that the notions spread by Laughton's widow Elsa Lanchester "Laughton hated kids" and "couldn't bear to direct the child actors in the movie" were true to fact, but this is solidly disproved in the pages of the book, not merely from the words of those who were present in the set (which describe a good entente between director and children), but also from the filmed evidence that Preston Neal Jones got from witnessing laughton's direction of the children in the surviving rushes of the film (more about this in an upcoming post about Robert Gitt's documentary).
We get also fascinating glimpses of Laughton's directing methods: he didn't have the habit of shouting "cut" and the camera was kept rolling between diferent takes, a measure that helped the actors' concentration not to be broken. The film was shot in the silent-movie manner: Laughton gave directions to the actors as the scene was being shot (in post-production, Laughton's voice was, of course, cleared). Being an actor himself, Laughton's manners' towards cast and crew were starkly different from those he had suffered himself while working at the orders of some directors-dictators, autocrats of the set.
While he had a well-defined idea of what he wanted to do in the film, he also fostered creative input coming from his collaborators. Stanley Cortez, for instance, graphically described his fruitful exchange of ideas with Laughton as "mental intercourse". We can also pay heed to actor Peter Graves, who stated that working for Laughton, as compared what he had experienced working for John Ford, was like going from hell to heaven.
In the aftermath of "The Night of the Hunter", a tantalising account is given by Cortez and Sanders about the preparatory work of what would have been Laughton's second film, "The Naked and the Dead" (after Norman Mailer's novel), which reveal that he wanted to make it as visually and narratively innovative as "The Night of the Hunter" was. And we are also revealed that, had not the commercial failure of "The Night of the Hunter" put an end to his career as a director, that he was keen on directing a film adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again": Laughton was an admirer of Wolfe ever since he was introduced to his work in the radio programmes he did for Norman Corwin and included excerpts of Wolfe's novels his reading tours.
This post is only a brief hint of the riches contained in the book... The reader is welcome to discover the rest of the treasure.
Some external links with info and reviews about the book:
:: Details from the publisher, Limelight Editions.
:: Review by Matthew Plouffe at Film Comment.
:: Review by Kendahl Cruver at bookreview.com
:: Details and reader's comments at Amazon.com
:: Capsule info at Turner Classic Movieswebsite
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