Laughton's refusal to be reductive can be easily missed because of his movie's apparent simplicity. But though it harks back to simpler forms of expression, The Night of the Hunter complicates all that it touches—Laughton keeps undercutting the movie it could have become. Its Capra-esque platitudes by themselves can be mawkish; sitting next to images of stark surrealism, they bloom into moving affirmations of American innocence amid American corruption.
Preacher himself embodies Laughton's efforts to tell something richer and stranger. Flamboyantly threatening though he is, he actually falls short of demonic. From some angles, Preacher can appear a force of nature, a close kin of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. But Laughton keeps puncturing his menace. He instructed Mitchum to inject some buffoonishness into the role, and Mitchum garnishes his devilish turn with cartoonish curlicues—an odd yip here, a clumsy tumble there. Gish reportedly disagreed with Laughton's deflation of Preacher—and she may have had a point—but Laughton was just as interested in showing a human fraud as he was in a superhuman villain.
The result is, finally, something of an oddity—sui generis, and thoroughly ours. The movie's highlights echo through the work of our best artists. That river trip, with its wide-eyed view of indifferent nature, seems to hold the key to Malick's cinema; its impeccably composed mayhem appears in the Coens' movies (a corpse at the bottom of the river in The Man Who Wasn't There will look mighty familiar to Hunter fans); Scorsese's remake of Mitchum's own Cape Fear (1962) seems to take as much from the original as it does from Hunter. Perhaps its most prominent quotation comes from another movie that recognized how deeply enmeshed good and evil are in the American soul:
Laughton never lived to see his movie become the touchstone that it is. His only other shot at directing was an aborted film version of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. The great James Agee, who wrote the script, died two months before the movie's 1955 premiere, his last work for the screen as indelible a vision of the world of children as his A Death in the Family. As unshakeable as last night's dream,their movie still speaks to us across the decades: a primeval spook story, a tribute to childhood, and a plaintive American prayer against the devil inside that we will never quite exorcise.
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