The 50 greatest debut movies: part six

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Yes, it's our choice for the number one first film: Orson Welles fans can direct their complaints to the usual address...

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Directed by Charles LaughtonThe twisted vision of a tragic genius, never to be repeatedCan a director’s one and only film really be considered a debut? If we made a list of the 50 greatest swansongs, could ‘The Night of the Hunter’ head that list, as well? Frankly, yes. Of all the diverse bodies of directorial work in the long history of cinema, Laughton’s stands as perhaps the most flawless and untouchable: no second-movie jitters, no mid-period slump, no slide into doddery obsolescence. One perfect film, one singular statement, achieving more in 92 minutes than most directors manage in a lifetime.
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Much has been made of the film’s originality: the combination of influences, from Grimm fairytales through French romanticism and German expressionism to film noir, all fusing and mutating to form something wholly fresh. Perhaps the best description of the tone comes from François Truffaut – ‘it’s like a horrific news item retold by small children’ – but that’s only one side of the story, there’s much more to ‘The Night of the Hunter’ than just the naïve child’s-eye perspective for which it has become justifiably famous. Laughton may have identified most closely with his pre-pubescent escapees, but there’s no doubt he feels a little something for Robert Mitchum’s Preacher too: loathing, yes, but also respect, admiration, and just a touch of kinship. The film may be about the child in all of us – and the psychological escape routes we hunt for when that child comes under threat – but it’s about the cold-blooded, manipulative, cynical villain in all of us, too. The Preacher may be an archetype, but with his dry wit, self-awareness and dogged single-mindedness he’s one we can relate to.
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It’s also interesting to assess the subsequent impact of ‘The Night of the Hunter’: for a film which left very little impression on first release, the tendrils of its influence have snaked into the most unlikely corners, as proven by this month’s BFI season of works related to Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’, of which Laughton’s film is the opener (Radio Raheem recounts Mitchum’s ‘left hand, right hand’ speech in Lee’s movie). It’s hard to imagine modern villainy without the influence of The Preacher: the easy charm, the quick wit, the relentless urge to destroy. Tales of indomitable heroes had been commonplace in movies and serials for years, but this is one of the first examples of an indomitable villain: he’s The Terminator with more personality, Michael Myers with charisma, Freddy Krueger in a different hat (but equally nightmarish).There are directors who seem to spend much of their careers tilting at ‘The Night of the Hunter’: the queasy fairytale logic of Tim Burton, or the glittering psychic murk of David Lynch, whose ‘The Elephant Man’ is perhaps the closest any director has come to recapturing Laughton’s fragmented dreamscapes. But it’s a hopeless task: ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a film which can never be, and perhaps should never be repeated, and the passing of time has done nothing to dim its singular, undeniable brilliance. TH
Watch the creepy 'everlasting arms' scene

Read the Time Out review here
Explore the list: 50-41 40-31 30-21 20-11 10-2

Author: Adam Lee Davies, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston


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