Season 1 of Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at the Film Experience ends tonight, and Nathaniel picked a doozy of a picture to wrap things up: The Night of the Hunter, the only feature directed by Charles Laughton, and arguably the finest work in the career of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, in a career including Orson Welles's sophomore effort The Magnificent Ambersons, and the one-two Sam Fuller punch of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, just so we all understand what an overweening thing I've just claimed on his behalf.
The film is a marvelous thriller, featuring Robert Mitchum's best performance as a murderous conman posing as a preacher, and Shelley Winters's best as the addled woman who falls for his trickery (though I should mention that I'm not the world's biggest Winters fan), and Lillian Gish's... not-best performance, but let's not let anything sour the movie. A grim bedtime story, a nightmare fairy tale for adults, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most beautiful, haunting, even terrifying movies of the '50s.
But we're here, if I recall aright, to pick my favorite shot. There are a great many to choose from. A great many. As I said, though, my preferred reading of the film is as the scary bedtime story, and so I narrowed my choice to those images that best evoke the "once upon a time", not quite real sense evoked by that phrase, "bedtime story". And here it is:
The young protagonists, in their journey away from Mitchum's all-encompassing evil, have fled down the river, filmed with delightfully Impressionist touches, of which my favorite must be the kindly light in the window of this isolated house, surrounded by a glow that suggests heaven itself is inside. It's not; it's just a waystation where the children can sleep for one single night, but the unearthly beauty of the farm is at least in part a promise that things are going to get better. At any rate, in a litany of gorgeous images that mark the river voyage, this is the one I love the most.
A close second is the shot of the preacher, menacing even in the distance, that ultimately drives the children away from this temporary shelter and onward toward their ultimate sanctuary.
But since it is "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", not "Hit Me With All The Shots You Damn Well Please", I will say no more about it.