The Night of the Hunter – 1955
Director – Charles Laughton
Starring – Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, and Billy Chapin
There are not many other films that carry the respect and weight of expectation to the extent that The Night of the Hunter does. In most cases this works as a benefit for most other films. This way the film doesn’t have the possibility of letting you down if it fails to live up to those lofty expectations. Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Night of the Hunter succeeds where a slightly lesser film, with lesser actors, might fail.
First and foremost, the film is remembered for the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell, a performance that oozes with anger and menace. Mitchum plays Powell to the woman-hating, selfish, and sadistic nines, enjoying every minute of his own performance (which usually doesn’t work, but here, I’m having just as much fun as he is). Powell roams the country-side of a beleaguered depression era America killing widows and stealing their money. Even though he claims to be instructed to do it by God, I’m of the opinion his religious bent is simply his sheep’s clothing and the killing is actually his wolf’s nature.
The plot kicks in when Powell learns of hidden bank-robbery loot stolen by a soon to be executed inmate. Seeing this as a sign from God to continue his “work”, he devises a plan to pay a visit to the inmate’s family and claim it, no matter the cost.
Powell descends upon the Harper family figuratively, and (visually) literally like a nightmare, wooing the widow, and charming the young daughter. The inmate’s young boy, John Harper, played adequately by Billy Chapin, is left to stand up to this impending threat by himself with no help from anyone.
Now, this is a basic enough set-up, and if it were to continue to play out this way, it would have turned out to be a basic enough movie. Good, but not great. What makes this film truly shine is the fantastic American Gothic visuals provided by the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which, if you’ve read my review of that film, also had stunning visuals.
Each frame in the film could be viewed on its own and considered a piece of art strong enough to contend with any other frame. The use of silhouettes in this film provides a menacing atmosphere that acting just wouldn’t be able to portray. Combined with the charismatic performance of Mitchum, the cinematography goes great lengths to illustrate the surreal horror the characters are living. Set pieces change dramatically from day to night, from home to prison. Sanctuary to purgatory. One of the most impacting images in the film, a scene that takes place underwater, could have been accomplished completely through suggestion, and very well could have removed the suspense that the film had worked so hard to build up by that point, but instead served to heighten the impending danger and further tilt our perception about what Powell was capable of.
Another scene that stood out visually (there were MANY), was a scene where the children are hiding in the cellar. We break through the actual limits of what we could have seen by pushing past the fourth wall. Powell, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, blocks the escape of the children in the cellar. The children are all the way down at the other end of the screen from Mitchum, further illustrating the conflict between the characters, and what obstacles there are yet to overcome.
Charles Laughton, the actor famous for his roles in films like Spartacus, Captain Kidd, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes the directing reins in this film. So disappointed by the reaction to the film after it’s release, Laughton afterwards vowed to never direct again. It’s unfortunate that this turned out to be the case, because despite a few mediocre performances from the children, The Night of the Hunter was a very well constructed piece of art, worthy of its place on this list of 1001 greatest films of all time, and certainly the product of someone with vision and voice.
“Okay we get it, he’s a bad guy. Put down the fucking horns!” (on the musical score). – Ashley