One of my favorite things in film is contrast between light and dark, in both the characters and the lighting scheme. Who doesn’t love a character who isn’t truly what he or she seems? A combination of light and dark can make for a thrilling character. But, what I love more is how light and shadows play with each other, and the contrast it creates in the film. Some of my favorite moments where there is an extreme contrast between these two elements (known as chiaroscuro in the art and film realms) are in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece (and, unfortunately, his only film as director) The Night of the Hunter and Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician (Ansiktet, aka The Face), both of which were filmed in black and white. One other instance that I remember quite well is in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), in which Grace Kelly walks away from Cary Grant and into the shadows; her face disappears into the darkness and the diamonds around her neck sparkle in the bright light. Unlike the other two films, however, To Catch a Thief was filmed in color, but the effect is still present (though the chiaroscuro is, therefore, not as dramatic). But, let’s get back to The Night of the Hunter and The Magician.
Charles Laughton’s film, one of my absolute favorites, recounts the story of Reverend Harry Powell has gotten into the habit of marrying widows and then killing them for whatever money they may have (played magnificently by Robert Mitchum). Based on the novel by Davis Grubb, Laughton beautifully films how Powell comes into contact with Ben Harper, who is executed but has revealed to Powell that he has some money. Powell meets now-widow Willa Harper and her two children, John and Pearl (and they know where the money is hidden). Powell, consumed by the desire of money, claiming all of this to be the will of God, marries Willa, kills her, and then chases John and Pearl down the Ohio River in order to obtain that money. Near the end of the film, John and Pearl meet Rachel Cooper (the wondrous Lillian Gish), and takes the two children under her wing. Powell discovers where John and Pearl are now living, and he and Cooper face off in a chilling “battle.”
The Night of the Hunter is a wonderful film (with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish being the standout actors, though Billy Chapin, who plays John, does extremely well), and Laughton creates a spectacular-looking film. My favorite parts of the film are those in which the contrast between light and dark are very apparent. Take a look at this:
This is when Harry Powell discovers the Harper residence. The interesting thing, which I love, is that when it comes to lighting, Laughton goes for emotion rather than reality. There is no way that the lamppost Powell is standing under could ever cast a shadow that big. One must remember that The Night of the Hunter is told from a child’s perspective (or, more specifically, John’s perspective), and so there is a heightened sense of reality, almost a hyperreality. The childish (perhaps that not the right word) exaggeration is present throughout the film. The danger of Harry Powell, however, is far from exaggerated: he is a vicious monster—a hunter preying on the innocent, doing whatever it takes to obtain a momentary monetary happiness. Here, the contrast between Powell’s enlarged shadow and John creates an instinctive fear (and not just in the characters; I find Powell to be quite frightening and Mitchum does a fantastic job performing this monster) and undeniable creepiness. The mullions essentially create prison bars, and we get a sense that John will be trapped by this hunter, or at least there is a desire to do so.
Another instance in the film with awesome contrast is that in which Powell murders Willa Harper. The shadows have an indescribable richness and power that overtakes the scene. Willa, who has been succumbing to the ruthlessness of her new husband, has become a devout believer in God; and, so, when she knows her death is near, Laughton depicts her as angelic. A halo hangs around her head, and her whole body is lit while shadows fall around her:
She appears to be peacefully accepting her death because she knows what is to come; it’s a very gothic tale (my mind goes straight to Faulkner’s Light in August where Joe Christmas ultimately accepts his death and, in a way, commits his own suicide, and Kate Chopin’s short story Désirée’s Baby, where Désirée carries her child into the depths of a southern bayou, effectively committing suicide and homicide simultaneously. Don’t worry, I wrote a 20 page research paper comparing these two pieces of literature, so that’s why my mind goes straight to these two stories). Though Willa comes off as kind of daft and extremely gullible, we do sympathize with her, and the lighting helps the audience see her as an innocent, Powell’s innocent prey. This combination of contrast with the religious sense is even more apparent when we draw back and see the scene from a long shot:
We see Harry Powell wielding his murderous hand as Willa lays calmly on her bed. The sharply dramatic edges of the shadows creates a church within the bedroom. Powell looks above, as if asking God if this is His will. Again, there is a very gothic feeling to this piece of mise en scène (aka, the blocking or set up of the scene; literally “placing on stage”); one can almost recall Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, where Belle is eating dinner and the Beast comes out of the shadows asking her to marry him. Whereas Belle and the Beast end up happily married (though Belle’s slightly weirded out because the human form of the Beast looks exactly like the character Ludovic—as it should, since it’s the same actor, Jean Marais), Powell kills Willa because she knows his operations. The contrast is so theatrical that, just like the shadow of Powell in the previous screen capture, fear really sets in. Ironically, Willa is completely calm; the audience, however, is terrified.
One last example that I love is near the end of the film when Rachel Cooper watches guard; she and Powell sing a haunting duet of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Light is shown in two places: on the gun Cooper is holding, and half of Powell’s face. It’s a fantastic instance in which the roles have been reversed: Powell is now the prey and Cooper is the hunter (this hunter/prey dichotomy is illustrated by the multiple occurrences of this relationship in the wild):
The silhouette of Cooper gives her the power over Powell, who is seen partially; this illuminates the love and hate theme in the film. Powell tells the story of Cain and Abel, and he has LOVE tattooed onto his right hand and HATE on his left. So, I gather that, from the hands, this extends to the rest of his body. The left side of Powell is illuminated here, and, therefore, his true side—one of hate—is seen for what it really is, and Cooper is ready for the attack. It’s a strong parallel, and I love how it captures multiple layers of themes and symbols seen throughout the film.
These are just a few examples of how important lighting is in film, especially those filmed in black and white. There is a strong presence of sharp and deep shadows, illustrating the fear and hate the characters possess. This was one of the first things I began to think about while watching The Night of the Hunter, and I find it evermore impressive since this was Laughton’s first film as the director (and, sadly, his last; the reviews were far from favorable and Laughton returned only to acting). This is a great film, and, really, everyone should watch it. The folks at the Criterion Collection have produced a spectacular Blu-ray set of the film (along with the 2.5 hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”). I will discuss Bergman’s The Magician a bit later, as I noticed this post is running a bit long.
Do you have any favorite films that display this chiaroscuro?
Thanks for reading!