Hunting Down Laughton's Haunting Night
Last Saturday night brought an amazing highlight for me as a classic movie buff, as I was able to finally watch a presentation of The Night of the Hunter outtakes sponsored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives at the pretty-in-pink Billy Wilder Theater. Several years ago, I read this entry over at Leonard Maltin’s site, and I’ve been hoping to see a release of this rare footage (maybe on DVD?) detailing Charles Laughton’s extraordinary directorial achievement ever since. Thanks to my friend at Southland Cinephiles (a must if you’re a movie buff living in or near the L.A. area), I was alerted that a presentation of the outtakes was being shown again, and I rushed up the 405 freeway to finally witness one of my cinematic Holy Grails.
Luckily, I obtained a ticket before the sold out event sold out. Going into the theater, I spotted author Preston Neal Jones signing copies of his book, “Heaven & Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter”, which provides a comprehensive overview of the film’s shooting, as well as its pre and post production (my gratitude to Mr. Jones, as his excellent, awesomely informative book contains many of Laughton’s on-the-set musings, which are quoted below). Inside the theater, UCLA Preservation Officer Robert Gitt, who spent twenty years putting this very special footage together, was on hand to present the material. Gitt stated he first came into contact with the eight hours of existing outtakes from the film in New York after Charles Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, donated the material to the American Film Institute in 1974. Gitt relocated to Los Angeles, and started working with colleagues in 1981 to edit down the eight hours into the over 2 ½ hours of Hunter's choicest outtakes screened in the presentation. In 2002 Gitt begin showing this incredible footage to audiences, receiving an (understandably) universally enthusiastic response from fascinated movie lovers.
The footage starts with Laughton (possibly in an alternate opening he shot for the film) reading key lines from the bible, leading up to the “Beware of false prophets” line germane to the film’s story. As proved to be the rule during the showing of the remaining footage, Laughton, unhappy with the way he’s said a certain word or phrase, starts and stops often, telling the cameraman to keep rolling as the actor attempts to perfect his line readings. After this insightful look into Laughton’s approach to filming, Gitt wisely unveiled the ultimate behind-the-scenes footage in the same sequence as the film unfolds (rather than in the order the scenes were actually filmed). For the next two-and-a-half hours, the enthralled audience alternately laughed uproariously and sat in stunned, rapt attention at the unbelievable presentation.
Robert Mitchum is fascinating to watch, and not just because he’s so perfect in probably his best role. You occasionally see traces of Mitchum’s “bad boy” persona surface during the filming (more than once, he inserts in an amusing, inappropriate “poon tang” reference into his dialogue), but the outtakes more often show an actor clearly dedicated to his craft. Mitchum works hard with Laughton to make Preacher Harry Powell the intense, terrifying character we know and love/hate. For example, that piercing shriek Mitchum emits as the Preacher when John and Pearl escape in the boat was shot many times, as Laughton encouraged his dripping wet star to wail as passionately as possibly, over and over. Mitchum’s powerful playing receives the ultimate compliment after he nails the famous “L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E” speech: Evelyn Varden’s Icey states, “I never heard it better told,” then in a hushed, respectful tone the difficult-to-please Laughton can be heard repeating Icey’s statement before adding “And, by Christ, I never did.” Clearly mutual respect existed between director and star, and Mitchum is obviously willing in take after take to go the distance with the character in order to help Laughton fulfill his vision.
Laughton’s perfectionist approach appears at times to frustrate two of his key players, the young ten-year-old lead Billy Chapin, and Shelley Winters. Laughton’s demands for take after take, sometimes only to change the tone or emphasis of a single word, must have been trying at times; however, the results he obtained from Chapin and Winters support the director’s firm approach with his actors. In the finished film, Chapin does an exceptional job of delineating John Harper’s every mood, and the outtakes show how closely Laughton worked with the young pro to shape Chapin’s fine portrayal. One of the most compelling outtakes features Laughton directing Chapin during the “Here, take it Dad, it’s too much!!” scene, wherein John hits the captured Preacher over and over with the doll containing the hidden money Powell sought throughout the story. Laughton guides Chapin carefully through the emotional sequence, demonstrating line readings for the child to allow the youngster to grasp the script's complexities. For example, Laughton beautifully explains the reason for the boy’s wild cry of “Dad!!”(“It’s a recognition, somebody come back from the dead, like a ghost- “Daaddd!!”), as John recollects his father’s arrest at the outset of the film when Powell is being apprehended by the authorities.
Laughton may have made Shelley Winters lie in that bed and repeat her brief “The Lord just wouldn’t let it be” speech until the actress was groaning and pounding her pillow in frustration, but Laughton’s acute suggestions to Winters during the twenty or so takes (“You see his (the Lord's) dear face, Shelley”) led to one of Winters finest and most perfectly understated moments in the movie (and was there ever any better direction than Laughton’s suggestion to Winters, “Doesn’t matter about the lines, just smile Shelley, and be seraphic”?). Conversely, during Winters frantic “That’s where the Lord stepped in!!” appeal at the wake, Laughton allows his colorful star to cut loose before toning down her eye-bulging trouping to obtain a decent take. Winters may come off as somewhat overwrought in the final print during this scene, but she’s just fine in comparison with her first attempt at filming Willa Harper’s tumultuous speech, after which the normally verbose Laughton can only be heard to whisper, “Oh, dear.” Winters eventually does the scene to Laughton’s satisfaction, but not before getting maybe the biggest laugh of the evening: attempting to coax the correct reading from Winters, Laughton tells her to warm up for the speech by saying a prayer, “any kind of prayer that you know.” The emotional Winters, caught up in the moment, pauses as if deep in thought, then exclaims, “Shmah Ysroyel ahdenoy el o hay nu ahdenoy emhot!!!!”
The director exerts total control over all the performers, and it’s remarkable to watch the actors maintain focus and hone their performances as Laughton directs them through repeated takes. Fortunately, as Laughton kept the camera rolling between takes, we are granted the benefit of hearing Laughton carefully working with his cast to ensure each gesture, look, and line reading receives the proper emphasis. During these coaching sessions, Laughton’s amusing tendency for haminess is sometimes showcased:
“And Shelley, angelic and all that stuff."
“Lillian, don’t move.” (Gish: “Well, I have to move.”)
“Smile, Shelley, please. There, that’s it. . . all right, Mitch, kill her!!!”
(To novice actress Gloria Castilo, who plays Ruby in the film): “Don’t get nervous, start again! Relax! Nothing’s happening to you. No knives or anything!”
Even off camera, there’s no disputing who’s the star of this (outtakes) show.
Liilian Gish’s acting genius is in evidence during the filming of each of her scenes as Rachel Cooper. There’s a calmness and warmth about everything Gish does, and with her intuitive gifts as a screen performer, she’s the one actor who appears in total control of her character at all times, and the least in need of Laughton’s firm hand. She still follows nearly every direction Laughton gives her perfectly, and it’s awe-inspiring to see how quickly Gish changes Rachel’s inflections and moods, based on her director’s requests. One of the only times Gish appears to falter is when she’s attempting to emulate what she thinks Laughton wants her to do. Gish says “trapped” too broadly during the “I’ve got something trapped in my barn” line, as Rachel calls for the state troopers to pick up Harry Powell. After saying the line several times, Laughton is heard stating “No, Lillian, you’re emphasizing the word 'trapped' too much,” whereupon Gish immediately replies, “Oh, isn’t that what you wanted?”
Sally Jane Bruce, so precocious in the film, was more adorable in the outtakes. I’ve always thought Bruce had an original presence, but her acting was sometimes a bit stilted in the film. She’s an incredible charmer in the outtakes, though. Sitting in the gargantuan Mitchum’s lap, the tiny Bruce gently smiles and calmly chastises him with “You forgot your lines” when Mitchum briefly pauses. Later, when Laughton tenderly tells Bruce to run screaming into the shot which occurs right after the preacher has yelled “Tell me, you little wretch or I’ll tear your arm off!!” she placidly and sweetly replies, “okay,” then follows Laughton’s gentle cue and goes berserk. Gitt explained Bruce was picked for the part of Pearl after winning a singing contest, and in one take the audience gets to heard Bruce’s unusual, deeply resonant voice charmingly sing the “Pretty fly” song (later dubbed by an adult singer, for some reason) as the boat holding John and Pearl floats downstream.
One of the highlights of the evening was watching Evelyn Varden film Icey Spoon’s speech at the picnic, wherein she tells a group of her friends sex in a marriage counts for zilch. Laughton sets the tone at the outset of the scene by stating in deadpan fashion, “Girls, men are disgusting, except for Mitchum.” Varden then launches into her speech in fine form, leading up to Icey’s “I’ve been married to my Walt for forty years, and in all that time I just lie there thinking about my canning” punchline. The line is a guaranteed laugh-getter, but Varden really got the audience howling with the wry, knowing look she throws to the camera immediately after she finishes the line and the take is over. Guess Varden knew the score with men off-screen, too.
Stanley Cortez’s peerless, truly haunting cinematography, Alfred E. Spencer’s set design, and Hilyard Brown’s art direction are, of course, integral factors in the overall eerie mood of the film; it’s equally strange, and a bit surreal, to view the actors getting ready for their scenes amid their ethereal surroundings. Encircled by stylistic settings and misty lighting, the actors often appear to have a ghostly pallor during the night scenes, which helps sustain the unusual, uneasy atmosphere unique to Laughton’s sole directorial work.
Hunter has ranked high on my list of favorite classics ever since I first viewed and was scared witless by the film as a nineteen-year-old. Along with 1945’s Dead of Night, I still find it to be the most frightening movie I’ve ever watched. It was a remarkable, awesome experience to witness the film being created by Laughton and his phenomenal cast, and I’m still pinching myself to ensure it really happened. If Mr. Gitt comes anywhere remotely near your area to present this footage, “shake a leg” (as Icey instructs John and Pearl to do) and zip to Gitt’s location faster than a couple of tots on the run from Preacher Harry Powell.