Night of the Hunter, The (1955)
Release Date: August 26th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Laughton Actors: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
harles Laughton’s only directorial effort unleashed the bizarre and alarming “The Night of the Hunter,” a grim yarn often considered one of the scariest of all movies. Laughton was supposedly so disappointed by the film’s poor reception in 1955 that he decided never to direct again. But as a thrilling and morbid examination of an unreasoning murderer, his fledgling quarry, and his devious influence through perverted evangelism – all shot with an eye for German Expressionism – this faithful adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel is now frequently considered a film noir masterpiece.
West Virginia bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a fortune for his boy John (Billy Chapin) and tiny daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) before he’s hauled off to prison. While incarcerated, Ben meets suspicious preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who tries to persuade him to give away the secret to his treasure. After Harper is executed, Powell journeys to his house and courts widow Willa (Shelley Winters), hoping to use the relationship to interrogate the unwitting inheritors. When they refuse to tell him the whereabouts of the ill-gotten goods, he murders their mother and hunts the fleeing children across the state.
A deceivingly peaceful opening sequence with serene music and twinkling stars sets up a narrative that is both considerably curious and foretelling of imminent danger. A similarly tranquil score resonates throughout most of the film, greatly contrasting the horrifying violence depicted (or, to even greater effect, sometimes only suggested). Proceeding to focus on the themes of Depression-era upheavals of the family unit, the power of innocence, deteriorated identity, and the corruption of religion, the story makes a particularly potent choice to portray pure evil in the form of a man of God. Almost antireligious, “The Night of the Hunter” demonstrates how faith can blind followers from dark realities (witnessed chiefly through Willa’s character) or aid in the overlooking of atrocities. The kids are less easily deluded than their elders (though they’re mentally overwhelmed by hasty meetings with mortality, opting to exhaustedly bargain or lean toward Stockholm syndrome behaviors), allowing the balancing of good and evil to take a unique turn when John and Pearl must confront Powell without the help of typically evenminded adults.
Mitchum’s devilish reverend is the most impressive aspect, rapidly surpassing the uniqueness of the strange account itself. Coolly threatening, crafty, and cruel, his intimidating gaze and slow, solemn drawl (famously paired with lined hands sporting the tattoos of “love” and “hate”) grandly eclipse various moralizing lectures in favor of the frightening manipulation of trusting youths. Lillian Gish, as benevolent savior Rachel Cooper, represents the opposite of Powell’s wickedness, though her narration to the audience and reasoning for combating the intimidatory presence slows down the suspense and creates an ambiguous admonition. Her love is something the children have been without for so long and yet their uncommon strength exhibited throughout the taxing pursuit proves that she’s far from necessary to thwart the efforts of the serial killer.
At once condemning religion through its misuse and praising it by its successful countering of Harry’s malignity, “The Night of the Hunter” raises plenty of non-theological questions. Why does Rachel use biblical stories to placate the Harpers when their spiritual mother succumbed to a fate that can be blamed entirely on her empty beliefs? And why, when Rachel clearly fears Powell, does she wait to call the police until after being forced to shoot at him during a nighttime attack? By the unexpectedly uncertain conclusion, viewers aren’t granted the cathartic knowledge of Powell’s ultimate punishment or demise and are instead presented with a brief parting preachment.
– Mike Massie