Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Charles Laughton Directs.....

    The Night of the Hunter

Sunday night I went to the Filmhouse in Edinburgh with and to a special screening of The Night of the Hunter.

I have always though that this was one of the best films I've ever seen and so finding that almost all of the original film rushes and out-takes still survived intrigued me. Added to this the fact that the director, Charles Laughton, kept the camera running between takes giving the opportunity to see how he interacted with his actors meant that I was eager to see the film, the rushes and hear the talk that was given.

In the past when I have been to other special screenings of this type, it has usually been someone giving a talk about the film whilst showing various clips to illustrate the points being made, followed by a showing of the film in question. In this case the showing was, in the words of Robert Gitt (the presenter) "the film with narration". Gitt commenced his talk by briefly going over the career of Charles Laughton, who was well know as an actor in films such as "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935 - opposite Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian); "The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and, perhaps my favorite, David Lean's wonderfully executed "Hobsons Choice" (1953). Our lecturer for the evening then told of the history of the cuttings collection, and described what we were going to see, this being the film made up from the best bits of the rushes and out-takes. At this point he started the film.

From here on in, we had the film almost in its entirety, starting from the original idea to make a film of Davis Grubb's novel of the same name, through to the appalling marketing of the film studio. As each new person was added to the project a short biography was given which also explained how they gained their part in the film project. Laughton, who in his best roles tended to play overbearing tyrants, was surprising by the way be elicited performances from his actors in particular the two children, 12 year-old Billy Chapin as John and Sally Jane Bruce who, at 5½ years, was an absolute star as Pearl. Laughtons technique of keeping the camera running between takes allowed us to see the way he explained what he wanted and then gently coaxed the performance out of them. Sally, even for a young child was so professional, to the point that in some scenes she was rebuking Robert Mitchum (already a Hollywood star) for forgetting his lines.

There was only one scene where Laughton appeared to be a tyrant as a director and this was with Shelly Winters, though the question was raised did he shout at her because he was really angry, or was it an act on his part to make her feel as humiliated as the character she was portraying? Based on the other interactions with his actors I would say it was the latter.

Altogether I found it a most entertaining and enlightening evening, and I would certainly recommend that if you ever get the chance to see this film by the UCLA Film Archive take it as you will not be disappointed. Though as the very least you should see the film as released.

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