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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of Night of the Hunter

(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


dontdrinkthetaqiyya said...

Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of Night of the Hunter is a marvelously realized book. I saw this volume for the first time a few days ago. It is printed on quality paper and is attractively designed.

On first (mistaken) look I did not like the fragmentary presentation of the interviews -- until realizing that the breaking up of each interview was done to relate in linear sequence the whole story of the movie's creation as told by the personnel involved, starting (as I recall) with the planning to the pre-production to actual filming to post-production, etc.

Two micro-criticisms of this fine volume: I would have liked to have seen an interview with former child actor Billy Chapin who seems unfortunately to have remained fully away from the public stage since the 1950's. Billy was certainly old enough at the time of filming to have provided us lots of interesting experiences with Mitchum, Laughton, etc. The other minor point is that there are some photographs in the book that work well but very few are behind-the-scenes shots. As a substitute, there are a good number of amateurish run-of-the-mill line drawings that don't add much to the marvelous text.

All of this is what makes getting a double-DVD Special Edition produced even more important: permitting us a special look at the large amount of rushes that exist from the filming of the movie.

In the end, it's the text of this lengthy and entertaining volume that you will want to consult. If you love the film, you will love this book. It is the best and most entertaining volume that likely will ever be produced on The Night of the Hunter.

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gloria said...

Thanks for your 2 cents ;)

I agree that, good as the book is, it would have been good to have the testimonials of the younger members of the cast who were old enough to have sound recollections (you mention Billy Chapin, and I'm thinking of Gloria Castillo. Sally Jane was maybe too young at the time to give some adult insights now).

Which were the drawings you didn't like? I found them all interesting: If you were referring to Hylliard Brown's sketches, these I thought to be very illustrative about the mechanics of set design (and then I must admit I really love sketches and pencil drawings). The illustrations by writer Davis Grubb, if not professional (but then he was not an illustrator) are a fascinating insight about his transmission/exchange of ideas to/with Laughton (not the usual type of collaboration between a writer and a film director, and all the most interesting for that)... Some of these sketches were translated into film shots. As for myself, I would have liked to see the -finally not used- graphic work that Saul Bass did for the film.

I admit that I would have loved to see even more graphic items (whether photo or illustrations) and I'm sure the author would have loved to include them too... But in order to reproduce images in a book, permission from copyright owners must be obtained, etc... and maybe this wasn't possible in all the cases. Also, more images would have meant more pages, which would mean more plates, more paper and extra printing costs (with the subsequen rise in the price of the book).

Anyway, a Special DVD edition would be an excellent occasion to fill these small gaps... don't you think?

jim said...

Finished this book lastnight, great book full of information. Does anyone know why Billy Chapin did not participate in interviewa? Jim

Gloria said...

Hi Jim, Glad to learn you enjoyed it!

I've been looking through the book again to get the actual mention but I couldn't find the page where it was... Still, it was something in the lines that Chapin wasn't interviewed for health reasons, although a written report was supplied to the author of the book by Chapin's family.

(I'm quoting from memory, so don't take this as the exact remark)