Am I allowed to say that Charles Laughton‘s expressionistic The Night of the Hunter (’55) was never all that terrific? It was directed with exceptional feeling and visual command, of course, and it still delivers a perverse, fable-like satire of tyrannical rightwing misogyny — in this instance Robert Mitchum‘s asexual freelance preacher. But it’s not my idea of a great film — it’s more of an atmospheric oddballer.
The most noteworthy aspects are the LOVE and HATE tattoos on Mitchum’s fingers — an image that has, in a sense, outlasted the film itself. That and Mitchum’s smooth baritone as he sings the gospel spiritual “Leaning.”
The Night of the Hunter was an admirable effort by Laughton, for sure, but I’ve never wanted to watch it a second time. Joe and Jane Popcorn can usually smell trouble from ads and trailers, and they avoided this puppy like the plague. So will 2021 audiences, if I know anything about them.
So why remake it? Because the greatness of The Night of the Hunter has been taught in film schools for decades, and to this day there’s no questioning this article of faith. (To this day the same people who worship Laughton’s film also swear by the genius of Douglas Sirk.) It is therefore inconceivable to screenwriter Matt Orton (Operation Finale) and producers Amy Pascal and Peter Gethers that audiences won’t flock to their contemporary remake. Mitchum’s character will of course be transformed into a Trump-worshipping evangelical, etc.
News bulletin: The Night of the Hunter was essentially remade 33 years ago as The Stepfather (’87). Directed by Joseph Ruben with a screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, it was a satiric suspense thriller about a serial killer slash conservative dad in the Ronald Reagan mold (Terry O’Quinn). He marries a widow (Shelley Hack) with a teenage daughter (Jill Schoelen) and all kinds of fierce repression and holy hell break loose.
Set in the 1930s, Laughton’s film is about Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell marrying a naive widow (Shelley Winters). His motive is mainly to uncover $10,000 that her late bank-robber husband hid from authorities. Winters’ young children (Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce) can smell a rat from the get-go, and are therefore determined not to tell Powell where the cash has been stashed.