This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:
Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.
Now I say far more straightforwardly:
The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.