How The Night Of The Hunter’s Cinematographer Crafted Its Haunting Visual Style

The set of “The Night of the Hunter” was built by Hilyard Brown, who also designed the sets for “Cleopatra” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” “Now we had certain sequences down the river with the children and Hilyard Brown did a hell of a job for us in the building of the river and the houses of Stage 15 at Pathe,” cinematographer Stanley Cortez recalled in an interview with American Cinematographer. He recognized how strange the man-made landscape looked on film. “The only way to get some points over was to stylize it,” he explained. “The skies were all lit artificially and though it was in black-and-white it had a strange phosphorescent quality in it.”

Rather than be upset by the unnatural quality of the set on film, Cortez chose to lean into it. “Before the picture started, I made tests with Tri-X film to see what the film would do not only from a speed standpoint but from a dramatic point of view, which to me is more important,” he went on. “The technique is one thing and the dramatic concept is something else. In my book, the dramatic aspect is far more important, because through the dramatic concept the communication is made to the audience and this is the crux of the whole thing.”

The use of Tri-X elevated the uncanniness of “Night of the Hunter.” This made the artificial texture of the set feel intentional, rather than a budget restriction. Cortez lets the viewer know that they are not being asked to suspend their disbelief. In the words of Harry Styles, the movie “feels like a movie” (via Fred Film Radio).

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