The scene being enacted is a key one from the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, one of the most poetic and disturbing movies ever made about the terrors of childhood — but the players in this instance are not, strictly speaking, children. Instead, we have Shelley Winters as a young widow, and Robert Mitchum as the murderous preacher who has wormed his way into her heart, hoping to find the cache of money her late husband hid somewhere on the property. This is their wedding night. Cameraman Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) lights their honeymoon chamber in a jumble of sharp, triangular shadows, and director Charles Laughton, owner of that firm, avuncular voice, stages the action in dynamic, off-center compositions with a sure eye toward the glittering way they’ll fuse later, when edited by Robert Golden.
“Notice how Laughton never says ‘Cut,’” observes assistant film preservationist Nancy Mysel, who has painstakingly organized this footage under the supervision of UCLA‘s preservation officer Robert Gitt. “He just keeps the camera rolling as he coaches the actors.”
Mitchum pivots beside the bed, finger pointing in hellfire-reproach at the trembling Winters, whom he urges toward a mirror: “Look at yourself, girl! What do you see! You see the flesh of Eve, whom man since Adam has profaned!” (The delicious, biblically cadenced dialogue was adapted by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb.)
Laughton’s voice gently intrudes: “Not so heavy on the outside of your psyche, Mitch.” He invites him to inhabit a more inward “disgust at all this . . . stuff.”
Meaning sex. A snaggly, conspiratorial grin flickers across Mitchum‘s lips. He shifts his weight, and while submerged briefly inside himself, finds there a primal, almost bewildered key of revulsion, and comes oozing . . . this time not just meanness, but real menace.
“That’s rare,” says Gitt, who will be introducing this footage when it screens this week at UCLA, as part of the university‘s 11th annual Festival of Preservation. “Of all the actors, Mitchum gives the performance Laughton does the least fooling with.”
One feels the intuitive bond between actor and director in these raw outtakes. As Simon Callow writes in his excellent 1987 biography of Laughton, “They had recognized in each other a man at war with himself.” In their private moments, when Laughton took what was, for him, the rare step of confessing his homosexuality, Mitchum shrugged it off with a chuckle: “No shit! Stop the car!” The actor, in turn, revealed himself to his director as a man secretively literate and gracious, even shy. “All this tough talk is a blind, you know,” Laughton later told Esquire. “He speaks beautifully — when he wants to. He’s a very tender man.”
Paradoxically, it‘s this very tenderness that most frightfully shadows the preacher’s monstrosity in the finished film (also showing this week), especially when he does away with the widow and turns his greedy attentions upon her two small children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), pursuing them like a fairy-tale ogre along the riverbanks of a dreamily textured Depression-era South. He seems all the more dangerous precisely because he is always so calm, like a snake hypnotizing its prey — softly singing as he approaches, forever casting a devilishly confident, long shadow in front of himself.
The children, especially little Sally Bruce, present Laughton with a very different set of challenges. “No, no, dear,” he tells her repeatedly in the outtakes, kindly, kindly, with shows of patience that by torturous degrees begin to sound Oscar-worthy as she persists in looking into the camera, rushing her lines, lifting her doll over her shoulder, or piping to the camera (in imitation of Laughton): “I think that‘s a print.” Billy Chapin, by contrast, hits his marks and takes directions with impressive finesse — and for this is playfully addressed by Laughton as “Old Man” (while the director continues to call Mitchum and Winters “Children”). Winters — who was once Laughton’s acting pupil — is tentative and vulnerable, but in a way both she and Laughton are ultimately comfortable with. In the outtakes, one can hear her Stanislavsky-ish self-immersion in her role clashing with Mitchum‘s more Zen “Let’s pretend” method — and one can overhear Laughton relishing the contrast, letting it inform their impossibility as a couple.
With Lillian Gish — as the maternal stranger who rises in the film‘s second half to defend the children from Mitchum — Laughton gave only brief adjustments, Gitt observes, “But it’s remarkable to watch how subtly her readings would then evolve across two and three takes.” Gish is the indispensable force of affirmation in the film, an ideal threat to the preacher (who literally squawks like a rooster when she takes a shot at him), radiating a goodness that can‘t be faked.
Because The Night of the Hunter was to be his debut as a film director, Laughton made a point of studying the films of D.W. Griffith — he had been particularly moved by Gish in Griffith’s 1919 Broken Blossoms, back when he was a young veteran fresh from some of the bloodiest of the fighting in World War I. Gish‘s innate dignity counterbalances Mitchum’s aura of chaos wonderfully, and her presence causes the finished film to break bread with the primal emotions aroused by the very first movies. Laughton never imitates Griffith — he‘s too instinctively an original — but across generations the two share a comparable reverence for childhood and its intensities.
Laughton had planned to direct more films after The Night of the Hunter — his friend and producer Paul Gregory acquired the rights to Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead, and Mailer was deeply impressed by Laughton‘s command of the topic. (Laughton had killed men in hand-to-hand combat, but never spoke of this; like fellow veteran James Whale, he expressed what he knew of bloodshed most comfortably in the third person, or through gothic imagery.) Unfortunately, the failure of The Night of the Hunter doomed him to one shot as a director. Because he’d found he loved directing, this was the blow — according to his widow, Elsa Lanchester — that broke his heart.
A dozen years after Laughton‘s death in 1962, Lanchester called the AFI, where Robert Gitt was employed, and offered it the 20 boxes containing 55,000 feet of outtakes. This bounty (almost unheard-of for its time; prior to the rise of DVD, outtakes were routinely destroyed) makes delightful viewing, and, in a sense, constitutes a ghostly second film by Laughton. Call it the autobiography of his working life. His soft-spoken interactions with his actors, the intricacies of his planning, which are visible even in the present fragmentary form, make for a more fascinating — if indirect — self-portrait than any memoir. Perhaps that’s why he preserved them, in the hope that we would notice.
“Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter: A Presentation of Outtakes From the Film” screens Thursday, August 15, 7:30 p.m., at UCLA‘s James Bridges Theater. See Film and Video Events in Calendar.