Effective Use of Montage in the Movie, The Night of the Hunter

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Effective Use of Montage in the Movie, The Night of the Hunter

A rapid succession of images or scenes that exhibits different aspects of the same idea or situation, this is the definition of montage as provided by Encarta Encyclopedia ’98. The idea of a “montage of attractions” was first used by Eisenstein and Pudovkin in the 1920s for the purpose of invoking specific emotions in the viewers. The movie The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish makes use of this film technique.

The use of montage is apparent from the beginning of the movie. The first image we see is Mrs. Cooper (Gish) telling children a story as they are superimposed over the night sky. The next image is a bird’s eye view of children playing hide and seek and then finding the dead body of a woman in a cellar (which we are later led to assume was a crime committed by Powell). Following this we see Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum) as he travels, views a burlesque show, and is arrested. Powell’s scenes are interspersed with Ben Harper’s scenes where he speaks to his children, hides his money, and is arrested. It isn’t until these two characters scenes converge in the prison that we begin to understand what’s going on and get a premonition of things to come. This is perhaps the most obvious use of montage in the film.

We see this technique later in the movie as well. When Willa Harper is in Spoon’s shop talking to Mrs. Spoon (though we cannot hear what they are saying), all of a sudden we hear a train whistle and see an image of a moving train. Then again we see Mrs. Harper and Mrs. Spoon and again the train. This was a bit odd to understand at first as the transitions between the scenes are very sharp and sudden it almost startles you....

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... We see the timelessness of the dreamlike river scene and the mother’s hair floating under the water scene. Timelessness is a common theme that is representative of childhood and with the gift of the watch we can now see John as a man with the power to use time rather than drift helplessly along with it as he had drifted along with the river.

When thinking of “a rapid succession of images or scenes,” my first thought was that this was an awkward use of film. As the book, Film Theory and Criticism says, “Simply stringing separate photographic shots together will not produce intelligible works of visual art.” Yet the use of montage in The Night of the Hunter was very subtle so that at points I wasn’t aware that I was watching a montage. It also enhanced the film’s thematic qualities greatly and by doing so convinced me of the values of a montage when used well.