Naivete and Innocence in The Night of the Hunter
The 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, has long been cited for its visual exposition of frightening, leering imagery, among other components relevant to the film’s plot. The film is also notable for the thematic usage of contrast in order to visually depict the relationships of the characters with each other and their various ideals. Various visual elements tie into a core visual theme of the film, that being idealized innocence, naivete and impressionability and how the characters throughout the film relate to such a theme.
One means by which such innocence is emphasized is by way of lighting. The first diagetic scene in the film shows a starry background, superimposed upon which is the softly-lightened figure of Cooper. In a dissolve, she is temporarily replaced by the equally-lit heads of five children, their heads eagerly looking forward or upward against a top-level light before they dissolve back to Cooper. The soft frontal lighting which accentuates Cooper’s face at various points in the film, intended for when Cooper looks upward, makes for low contrast in order to show her vigilant relation to the equally-lit children under her tutelage. In contrast, Powell’s lighting largely defaults to hard side lighting, creating a high contrast to his profile which highlights the impermanence and looseness of his public facade.
Another outstanding aspect which is the choice of character facial posture. Most of the children in the film reflect the idealized innocence of children. In comparison, the posture of John, the lead child character of the film, is always ridged at the brow, his eyes serious and perceptive, in stark contrast to his sister Pearl, who is usually more reflective of other, fresh-faced children in the film; only later in the film does Pearl reflect John’s facial disposition, her own original disposition being significantly subdued by the progression of events. Henry, notably, is also stern, imposing and stone-faced, lacking the softness or quaintness of other characters in the film, but with the sort of direct gaze which he shares with John. Cooper, the savior of the John and Pearl, is a mix of these two contrasts: often visibly serious and soured in her lips, while exuding a softness in her wizened cheeks and up-tilt head which is accentuated by the lighting of her face.
The activities and speed of movement in which the characters engage at various times during the film are further contrasts which delineate character dispositions in relation to the personality traits of the characters. Most of the children in the film are depicted as often playing with toys or in open areas, and the majority of adults in the film are shown as enjoying their own economic pursuits, be it the grizzled Birdie Steptoe’s fishing or the cheery, busybodied Icey Spoon’s canning. In contrast, Powell’s slow, domineering figure shows little excitement or bodily business except for either his occasional exposition of speechmaking or his momentary strenuous outburts of anger and lust.
Eye contact between characters is also of particular importance. The pivotal scene in which a leering Powell lingers in the background while Cooper sits in the foreground, both singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, is punctuated by the fact that Cooper, her face showing a vigilant and defiant reflection of the moment’s intensity, absolutely refuses to look in the direction of Powell. Likewise, the camera does not show whether or not Powell is looking in the direction of Cooper through the window, only switching between the furthest-away shot of Powell including the foreground featuring Cooper and the shot over the shoulder of Powell of the house; the scene has the effect of rendering Powell faceless, dehumanizing him into an idealized archetype of terror.
The props in the film help to accentuate the fragility of innocence in the characters. John and Pearl floating down the river at night visually depict the uncertain nature of their journey, as the turbulent, ceaselessly moving river water is, at times, heavily emphasized while the boat floats carrying the two children from frame to frame. The spiderweb which appears in the foreground as the characters float in the background underneath exemplifies the terror which threatens to ensnare the two.
In conclusion, the numerous visual features in the film prop up the theme of innocence and naivete by both setting an incremental visual contrast and blending contrasting visual elements in the depiction of characters who are less reflective of the theme. Most of the children of the film are most reflective of the core theme, while adults, ranging from the too-trusting Willa to the suspicious John to the avaricious Harry Powell, show various visual reactions to the same which are accentuated by choices of camera position, lighting, eye contact, kinesis and prop placement. The theme is carried from beginning to end by such contrasts to leave an impressive impact upon the viewer’s perception regarding the perceived necessity or paucity of such innocence in the characters who, visibly, possess it the least.