I saw Night of the Hunter this week. This may be an absurd comparison (it no longer sits with me as well as it did the other day), but the film initially reminded me of Terrence Malick’s films from the 1970’s:
1. Similarities between Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen in Badlands): Both are charismatic, cocksure, but ultimately lonely criminals in the 1950’s who ingratiate themselves to others through the sheer popularity of their personae: Powell as a righteous preacher and Kit as a James Dean figure. Most interestingly, neither character is presented psychologically; there is no attempt to fill out their back-stories or delve into their motivations. I find this particularly notable in the 1955 Night of the Hunter, since even Hitchcock, five years later, felt it necessary to explain away Norman Bates at the end of Psycho. We leave Hunter still asking, "Is he truly deranged, or is it all an elaborate act? Or both?"
2. Children as figures of audience identification: Malick’s 1970’s films are both narrated by adolescents – Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven – and so we see the world principally through their eyes. In Night of the Hunter, we empathize most strongly with nine-year-old John Harper (Billy Chapin), as he’s the only one who’s consistently suspicious of the villainous Powell. The use of children has a similar effect, I think, of flattening the film’s perspective. The kids aren’t wise or confident enough to provide insight – Holly’s narration in Badlands is coolly objective; John is mostly silent (even in the company of his friendly uncle) and fairly single-minded in his stubbornness toward Powell (he just wants to keep a promise to his father). And so if these are the only characters with whom we can affiliate ourselves, there’s something unsettling about the strangeness or complexity of the events simply not being remarked upon.
3. Nature imagery: As soon as John and Pearl run away, Night of the Hunter becomes littered with close-ups of animals – frogs, owls, and rabbits along the river banks; cows in a barn where the children take shelter. Malick similarly lingers on shots of animals throughout Badlands and Days of Heaven. And yet in this case, the cinematic function clearly differs. For Malick, the wealth of attention paid to grasshoppers, grazing deer, etc., in Heaven is all in the name of naturalism, both literally and figuratively. That is, he minimizes the structured human drama (the love triangle) in favor of the bigger, transcendental, natural world outside (those huge Midwestern skies). But Night of the Hunter operates in a much more theatrical, expressionist style. There is nothing outside the world of the narrative: the animals, like the sky full of stars, seem to exist solely to watch over the children. Whereas Malick uses nature to direct our attention away from the plot, Charles Laughton uses it to deepen the plot’s significance. Here, it’s part of the set design.