The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In the first part of my series on Southern Gothic cinema, I examined the origins of the Southern Gothic subgenre in literature, explored its cinematic emergence in the Pre-Code films of the ‘30s, and discussed subsequent influences like Bette Davis’s melodramas of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, and the American realist films of French director Jean Renoir. In part two, I’m going to explore how Southern Gothic cinema really took off in the ‘40s and ‘50s, primarily under the auspices of major American cultural figures like novelist William Faulkner and playwright Tennessee Williams. Adaptations of their work flooded theaters during this time and indelibly shaped filmic depictions of Southern Gothic themes: racial injustice, rural poverty, crime, emotional cruelty, dark family secrets, perverse sex, and shocking violence.

The fact that the Southern Gothic became a significant cinematic presence in the late ‘40s and ‘50s is no coincidence; the subgenre coincides with major historical events unfolding in the South during this time. While World War II reshaped Europe and Asia — politically and economically, as well as geographically — in more obvious ways, it also marked dramatic changes for the South. Primarily rural up until the ‘40s, Southern life and economy revolved around the farming of exports like cotton, tobacco, and textiles, supported by that offshoot of slavery, sharecropping. But population growth meant urban expansion in places like Atlanta, Raleigh, and Nashville, and the emergence of the “New South,” as it was known, meant that modernization was an inevitable, if gradual process.

The most important change to occur during the period — which shows up in somewhat restricted forms in Southern Gothic films, thanks to the limitations enforced by the Production Code — were related to civil rights. Jim Crow laws, which segregated black society from white under the deplorable “separate but equal” slogan, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1954 thanks to Brown v. Board of Education, though the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t gain serious ground until the ‘60s. This was exacerbated by tensions throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s caused by white communities (including politicians and law enforcement) blocking things like the right to vote, serve on a jury, or have access to education. The widespread societal changes brought on by World War II contributed to escalating strife and violence, but also supported events like the Great Migration, where thousands moved to Northern cities in search of jobs and broader freedoms.

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

In The New South, 1945-1980, Numan V. Bartley wrote, “Truman’s civil rights program had a direct linkage with the postwar spasm of racial mayhem in the South. During World War II, racial violence was not uncommon nationally, but only in the South did it continue after the war. The wartime social and economic disruptions in the region, the return of some 400,000 African-American veterans, and the voting drives and other black protest activities contributed to the antiblack rampage in the region… In Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina, white groups killed blacks who had voted or had participated in civil rights events. In northern Louisiana, eastern North Carolina, and the Mississippi Delta, lynch-mobs murdered black veterans” (76).

This is an important theme in one of the first major Southern Gothic films, Intruder in the Dust (1949), Clarence Brown’s adaptation of Faulkner’s novel of the same name. When Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, an unlikely trio band together to prove his innocence and save him from certain death by lynch mob: a white teen (Claude Jarman, Jr.), a black teen (Porter Hall), and an elderly white woman (Elizabeth Patterson). Shot in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s home, director Brown makes great use of the landscape, alternating between small town and rural settings. Brown had apparently witnessed a lynching in his youth and was determined to make the film despite studio reluctance — and later, interference — and it remains a great achievement in an already illustrious career (for example, his films with Greta Garbo are his most famous). It certainly went a long way towards revolutionizing depictions of race and racial issues in Hollywood.

For Sight and Sound, Nick Pinkerton wrote, “If a film were to address the issue of lynch law — still taking lives both white and (disproportionately) black, and after 1930, doing so exclusively in the South — it would have to steer clear of the race issue… This PCA edict was challenged by a handful of postwar social problem films, a category to which Clarence Brown’s 1949 adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust firmly belongs. The film’s screenplay was written by Ben Maddow, who shortly thereafter would land on the Hollywood blacklist — another of the periodic retractions of freedom of speech that mark studio-era American movies — and it was not until the PCA and blacklist both began to lose their authority that the spectre of the rude ‘justice’ of the lynch mob, usually riled up by wrongful accusation, would return to the screen.”

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

The novel focuses on the legacy of the Civil War, which is not an explicit theme of the film. Rather, Brown’s central focus is the question of personal and social responsibility in terms of systemic racism. It’s difficult to watch the film without feeling affected and though the ending is uplifting and implies hope for the future, it is an intensely angry work. Though it lacks the overtly Gothic elements of a slightly later film like The Night of the Hunter (1955), it has a number of macabre touches: an empty grave found at midnight, a body hidden in quicksand, and an expressionistic jail sequence no doubt informed by Brown’s prolific silent film work.

Faulkner’s particular blend of grim realism and the grotesque was an important influence on American literature in general — through novels like The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932) — and he shaped both literary and cinematic depictions of Southern life and culture. Faulkner also worked for MGM in Hollywood for a time, where he collaborated regularly with Howard Hawks and wrote (or contributed to) scripts for film noir classics like To Have and Have Not (1944), Renoir’s The Southerner (1945), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Big Sleep (1946). The latter in particular, though it is based on a Raymond Chandler novel, has some of Faulkner’s key themes: the complexities of male bonding, repressed female desire, and the heat’s ability to incite passion, violence, and even madness.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Faulkner was asked whether or not his writing was obsessed with violence. He responded, “That’s like saying the carpenter is obsessed with his hammer. Violence is simply one of the carpenter’s tools.” Violence does often seem inevitable in his novels, an element reflected in filmic adaptations of his work: Intruder in the Dust boasts murder, grave robbing, and an attempted lynching, while later efforts like Long Hot Summer (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959) focus on arson, attempted murder, assault, and more potential mob violence. These intrusions of violence and crime give the Southern Gothic, particularly as envisioned by Faulkner, certain overlapping qualities with film noir, yet there is something hopeful and uplifting about many of his conclusions. He once wrote that his general thesis is “that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom,” a heartening concept that balances the grimness behind his fiction.

Long Hot Summer (1958)

This theme can definitely be felt in both director Martin Ritt’s Faulkner adaptations, The Long Hot Summer and The Sound and the Fury, which are essentially romantic dramas with mild Southern Gothic themes. In The Long Hot Summer, a notorious barn-burner, Ben Quick (Paul Newman), is chased out of yet another town and finds his way to Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi, where he meets the cool, abrasive Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward). She’s the daughter of prominent businessman Will Varner (Orson Welles in an unsurprisingly film stealing performance), who is determined that she will find a husband and considers Ben for the job. The film quickly makes a correlation between heat, fire, repressed sexual desire, and impending violence. Of Ben it is said, “flame follows that man around like a dog,” but pyromania is not his own predilection, but rather is a stigma of his father’s that he’s been unable to shake.

Abusive parents and unwanted inheritances are also primary themes of Ritt’s generally maligned The Sound and the Fury. It follows the young Quentin (again Joanne Woodward), who lives in a small town in Mississippi with a motley family that includes her step-uncle (Yul Brenner), who has been her sole caregiver since her mother (Margaret Leighton) abandoned her, and her step-brother (Jack Warden), who is mute, mentally handicapped, and prone to violence. Quentin’s boredom makes her difficult — which is aggravated by her mother’s reappearance — and she has an affair with a carnival worker (Stuart Whitman), not realizing his true intentions until it is nearly too late.

Toxic domestic environments and difficult mother-child relationships were also a mainstay of playwright Tennessee Williams, who dominated Southern Gothic cinema in the ‘50s even more so than Faulkner through titles based on his own plays like The Glass Menagerie (1950), Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Baby Doll (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Fugitive Kind (1960), and his most overtly Gothic work, Suddenly Last Summer (1959). One of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, nearly all Williams’ visions of the South are claustrophobic, alcoholic, and consummately Gothic. He grew up in Mississippi in an abusive household; his mother, Edwina, was manipulative and unbalanced, while his father was a violent drunk. Williams never forgave himself for the fact that his beloved sister, Rose, remote and disturbed as a child, became a full blown schizophrenic when he left the house to pursue his writing career.

The Glass Menagerie (1950)

The Glass Menagerie, his most autobiographical work and the one that brought him fame, is based very closely on their story. In St. Louis, a young man named Tom (Arthur Kennedy) lives with his controlling mother (Gertrude Lawrence) and crippled, emotionally fragile sister, Laura (Jane Wyman), who cares for little outside of her collection of glass figurines. Their mother convinces Tom to bring home a friend (a young Kirk Douglas), to try to force Laura to have a gentleman caller, though the results aren’t exactly what she expects. Though essentially a parlor drama with no overt acts of sex or violence, the film is a disturbing depiction of a mother projecting her repressed desires and failed dreams on a daughter whose life she has essentially already ruined.

In The Paris Review, Susannah Jacob wrote, “Williams based Tom Wingfield’s story on those three years [the gap between times Williams was enrolled in college], before suffering his own nervous breakdown. Days after he returned home from the hospital, Williams remembers Rose walked into his bedroom ‘like a somnambulist’ and announced, ‘We must all die together,’ days after he returned from the hospital. ‘God damn it I was in no mood to consider group suicide with the family, not even at Rose’s suggestion—however appropriate the suggestion may have been,’ Williams wrote in his memoirs.” She was among the earliest patients to receive a then experimental surgery — the frontal lobotomy — and she spent the remainder of her life in institutions.

Most of Williams’ primary female characters are hysterical, love and sex starved, reckless, or even outright mad. Like exaggerated versions of early Southern Gothic cinematic heroines — from Temple Drake to Scarlett O’Hara — Williams’ women represent an evolution of the characters in the “woman’s films” of the ‘40s: the troubled convergence of conservative Southern values, restrictive moral codes that resisted the societal changes brought by World War II, sexual repression, familial pressures, and even domestic abuse and sexual violence. Characters like The Glass Menagerie’s Laura Wingfield (Jane Wyman in Irving Rapper’s 1950 film), A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film), Baby Doll’s Baby Doll (Carroll Baker in Kazan’s 1956 film), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Maggie Pollitt (Elizabeth Taylor in Richard Brooks’ 1958 film), The Fugitive Kind’s Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 film), and Suddenly, Last Summer’s Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 film) bear the mark not only of Rose, but of Edwina.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

In Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, John Lahr wrote, “Like all hysterics, Edwina was adept at transmitting her inner state to others. Her paranoia and her terror lodged in her children, modifying their behavior and keeping them at once overly suggestible and under wraps. Like Amanda [of The Glass Menagerie], she used her children as vessels into which she emptied the desires and the fears of her frustrated heart.” This frustration, seemingly sexual in nature, is a force that not only drives, but also controls some of Williams’ protagonists, namely Blanche DuBois. The aging descendant of an aristocratic family, Blanche comes to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) after some undisclosed difficulties. Hoping to start a new life there, she is horrified by the poverty Stella lives in, and the brutish, blue collar mannerisms of Stella’s husband Stanley (Marlon Brando).

Suspicious of Blanche, Stanley sniffs out the real story behind Blanche’s departure: she was driven out of town after an affair with an underaged student. Though Stanley’s friend Mitch (Karl Malden) was planning to marry Blanche, Stanley puts a stop to this, rapes her, and drives her to madness. Not believing her sister has been violently attacked by her own husband, Stella assumes the unstable Blanche has finally snapped and commits her to an asylum. A character that is pathetic, tragic, and somewhat larger than life, Blanche mirrors something Williams said about his own mother. He wrote, “Like a force of nature, she seemed to be directed blindly.” Blanche’s madness — in a strange parallel to actress Vivien Leigh’s real life struggles with mental illness — is somehow part of her charisma and gives her a sense of otherworldliness. She is one of the foremost Gothic heroines of ‘50s American cinema and her declaration that “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is a horrifying example of Southern hospitality and chivalry taken to their absolute extremes.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Alcoholism, marital discord, physical violence, sexual dysfunction, and homosexuality are all central components of the other cinematic adaptations of Williams’ plays from this period — many of which he wrote or collaborated on himself — though Suddenly, Last Summer is his most overtly Gothic. It concerns a young woman, Catherine, who is institutionalized after she witnesses her cousin’s suspicious death while they are traveling in Europe together. Her cousin’s mother (Katharine Hepburn), will do anything to keep things quiet, going so far as to bribe a doctor with a sizable donation if he will lobotomize Catherine.

Following a loose mystery format, in traditional Gothic fashion, the plot revolves around a dark family secret (Sebastian’s homosexuality), an issue of inheritance, a corrupt matriarch (though it is often a patriarch in classic Gothic tales like The Castle of Otranto or Uncle Silas), and a sequence where the “detective” (in this case, the psychiatrist) reveals the truth by administering a serum to Catherine in front of an audience of possible suspects. Horrifyingly, Catherine is finally able to recover from her trauma and remembers that a gang of boys Sebastian propositioned reacted violently, chasing him to temple ruins, where they beat and cannibalized him.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Finally, the only film to really outdo Suddenly, Last Summer on the Gothic front — and arguably the best of all the Southern Gothic films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, or maybe of all time — is Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, and with a script co-written by Laughton and the influential American writer and critic James Agee (The African Queen), this eerie film combines film noir, German expressionism, fantasy, horror, and Southern Gothic themes, resulting in a truly unique masterpiece nearly without parallel in American cinema. It is the only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton (The Private Lives of Henry VIII, This Land is Mine, The Paradine Case, The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution, and numerous other films), primarily due to the fact that both audiences and critics disliked or ignored the film upon its release.

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) accidentally kills two people during a robbery. Before he is arrested, he hides the money inside a doll belonging to his young daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and swears his two children, including his son John (Billy Chapin), to silence. He is executed in prison, but not before deliriously revealing to his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, cast against type in one of the most iconic performances in American cinema), that the money is hidden somewhere near Ben’s home. Harper, a dangerous serial killer serving jail time for a minor offense, heads to Ben’s home in West Virginia and, convincing her that he is doing the Lord’s work, marries Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Desperate and lonely, Willa falls in love with him, only to be coldly rebuked and then murdered when he realizes she doesn’t know about the hidden cash. Instead, he goes after John and Pearl, who flee in desperation down the river, into the wilderness, with Powell hot on their heels.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

This nightmarish film, which asserts that “it’s a hard world for little things,” has some truly frightening scenes and a sense of unbearable suspense that builds throughout. It borrows heavily from Southern Gothic literature and combines many of its tropes, particularly issues of poverty, domestic distress, and an absent father — one who means well, but is doomed by his misguided actions. The Reverend Harry Powell, on the other hand, is the face of evil, a false preacher believing he is doing God’s work by murdering his way through the country, with “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles. Powell is based on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer executed by hanging in 1932 for the murders of several people, including a mother and her children. Powell’s journey – a ruthless quest for wealth – touches upon the rotten core of the American dream.

This is further emphasized by Shelley Winters’ wonderful performance as Willa, yet another of Southern Gothic’s ineffectual, if not downright destructive mothers. She is so full of loneliness, longing, and a desperate, clinging sexuality that she gives off an almost childlike quality. Like the town’s other adults, she is obsessed with appearances. She trusts in Powell’s supposed role as Reverend and is determined that he will provide salvation for her: from isolation, poverty, despair, and even sexual longing. Of course, in one of the film’s most shockingly violent yet beautiful moments, he murders her and stashes her body at the bottom of the lake, where her hair mingles with the seaweed.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Though Powell – as the corrupter and seducer hiding behind a charming, even pious visage — is one half of this narrative, the other belongs to the children, Pearl and John. While Night of the Hunter is a film noir-influenced story about crime, murder, and terror, it is also a fairytale with pastoral themes. Both poetic and fantastical, the children’s flight down the river takes up much of the film and is a Twainian journey through America’s rural heartland. This lengthy sequence is full of fantasy and horror, and becomes quite experimental, at least for a Hollywood film. Laughton breaks free somewhat from the film’s narrative structure and instead provides snippets of the children’s desperation, illustrated by breathtaking, expressionistic cinematography from Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) and the haunting score from Walter Schumann, which combines classical, choral, and folk themes.

In an echo of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and that novel’s atheistic, anti-religious preacher, Hazel Motes, Powell is not merely using religion as a convenient mask, but it becomes an integral part of his identity. Through his association with it, he perverts faith, belief, and even God. In Wise Blood, Motes states, “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” though Powell and Motes share a “deep black wordless conviction.” Powell is a deeply nihilistic figure and, even though the film has a happy ending, where the children are taken in by a kind, elderly protector (Lillian Gish), Powell’s miasmal presence remains. For the film’s most chilling scene, Mitchum and Schumann chillingly reworked the hymn “Leaning on Everlasting Arms.” Powell sings, “What have I to dread, what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms; / I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, / Leaning on the everlasting arms.” The implication is that the children have nothing to fear, because, if Powell has his way, peace is equivalent to the quiet oblivion of death.