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In the film The Night of the Hunter, director Charles Laughton uses montage on multiple occasions to create a variety of visual and emotional effects. Montage is used to slow time and create tension, as a foreshadowing device, and as a symbolic depiction of the film’s conflict.
Towards the end of the film, when John and Pearl Harper escape from Preacher Harry Powell via the river, montage is skillfully utilized to slow time, thus enhancing the drama of the moment. As the children scramble down the riverbank to the rowboat, the frame alternates between a high angle shot of the children by the river and a low angle shot of the Preacher on the hill. With each successive shot, the Preacher moves steadily closer to the boat, slowly building the scene to its dramatic climax and the children’s narrow escape. By alternating the shots in this montage, the entire scene takes longer to depict than if the camera merely showed a stationary long shot. This additional time amplifies the tension of the moment, making John and Pearl’s escape all the more dramatic.
As Eisenstein discusses, montage can also be employed as the combination of two unrelated images to create a third, unrelated concept, similar to Japanese writing. Laughton uses this technique in the candy shop scene, when Willa Harper is told she needs a man in her life to take care of her and the children. The shot then changes to a large, black oncoming train, with loud, bass-heavy music in the background. High contrast lighting and the dramatic music intensify the fear the train produces. These two shots alternate several times, the train coming closer each time. The combination of the unrelated images ominously foreshadows the terror and fear to come when Willa meets Preacher Harry, and he begins to lie and scheme his way into her life and secrets. Harry’s domination and control eventually lead to Willa’s murder, and John and Pearl’s desperate escape. This montage in the first half of the film establishes the fearful tone of the remainder of the film.
Laughton also uses montage to illustrate the harshness of nature and society during the children’s trip down the river, in the form of close-up shots of various animals, both predator and prey.
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