THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a mesmerizing, horrific fairy tale quite unlike anything else I've seen before. With striking cinematography, haunting music, and storytelling which incorporates allusions to everything from the Bible to Hansel & Gretel to Huck Finn, it provides viewers with a great deal to ponder and discuss. It's definitely worth seeing, although at this point I'm not quite sure if I liked it or not!
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a psychopathic killer masquerading as an itinerant preacher during the Great Depression. Harry has married a succession of women, taken their money, and killed them.
Soon after arriving in a rural town, Harry marries Wilma (Shelley Winters), a widow whose husband (Peter Graves) hid $10,000 from a robbery before he was arrested and executed for murder. The only people who know where the $10,000 is hidden are Wilma's young children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who swore to their father never to tell the money's location. But Harry is going to make them talk.
There's much more to the story, which unspools like a waking nightmare. A scene where the children struggle to escape from Harry, going up cellar steps and then away in a little boat, will be familiar to anyone who's had a bad dream about needing to get away from something evil but being frozen in place. It's not filmed in slow motion, but it feels like it!
Many things about the film, from the odd characters to the sets to the strangely angled photographic shots, seem exaggerated, just as they would be in a bad dream. The long-distance shots of a barn and house look more like silhouetted cutouts than anything real. In fact, the only thing in the children's world who seems truly "real" and dependable is Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the no-nonsense farm woman who becomes the children's protector.
Rachel has previously taken in three homeless girls, and when the runaway John and Pearl wind up on her doorstep it's only natural that she whisks them into her house. Rachel provides a bath, a bed, food, and someone finally willing to carefully watch and listen to the children. She's a tough, sensible woman who exemplifies true Christian love, compared to the fake brand Harry peddles as a means to commit his crimes; when she interrupts Harry in the middle of one of his emotional sermonettes and then unexpectedly aims a shotgun at him, it's the fist-pumping "Yes!" moment the viewer has been waiting for.
Rachel and Harry ultimately symbolize the battle between Good and Evil, or Love and Hate, the words tattooed on Harry's hands. A scene where they simultaneously sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" is both stunningly beautiful and creepy, as is the entire sequence where Harry stalks the farmhouse.
Other than one memorably disturbing shot, there isn't a bit of gore in the film, but at times I wondered if it was the scariest movie I'd ever seen; I know if I'd seen this as a child I'd have been absolutely terrified! Yet at the same time, there wasn't anything on the screen that made me avert my eyes or stop watching. I had to stay with it until the story was resolved, in a fitting Christmas Day conclusion, which again ties in thematically with the overall story.
I'm not sure there's ever been anyone on screen quite as evil and malevolent as Robert Mitchum is in this film. I'm a big Mitchum fan, but I'm glad I didn't seen him in this first or I might have been afraid to watch him in anything else! Fortunately Gish, who was in her early 60s when the film was made, is more than a match for Mitchum, despite her outward fragility. It's a superb performance.
My favorite scene with Rachel might have been when her oldest charge, Ruby (Gloria Castilo), confesses she's been sneaking out to meet men, and instead of anger, Rachel compassionately embraces the repentant Ruby and says she knows Ruby was trying to find love.
The other acting is all fine, with the over-the-top performances of Winters and Evelyn Varden fitting in with the style of the film; Varden plays Winters' employer, and her character's name, Icey Spoon, is yet one more odd note in the film. The children were excellent, particularly Billy Chapin as the brave boy protecting his little sister. (Chapin is the brother of Lauren Chapin of FATHER KNOWS BEST.) James Gleason and Don Beddoe are also in the cast.
The black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez vies with James Wong Howe's work on SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) as one of the most strikingly filmed movies of the 1950s. As I read about the film, I discovered that last year several blogs participated in picking their favorite visual moment. A blogger named Michael at Serious Film wrote that his favorite shot is whichever he's experiencing at the moment, and aptly described the movie as a "film noir diorama that unfolds with the logic of a nightmare." Other blogs which discuss the film's settings and cinematography may be found here, here, and here.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton. Some background reading I've done suggests that Robert Mitchum did uncredited work assisting in the film's direction, particularly with the child actors.
Writing this post has been helpful in clarifying my thoughts on the film. As my comments come to a close, I think I could say that while I'm not sure I precisely liked the film, I enjoyed watching it, admired much about it, and feel that I'm going to be mulling it over for a long time to come, which surely must be a mark of cinematic success.
I watched this 93-minute film in a beautiful DVD print from Criterion. The two-disc set is packed to overflowing with extras, including a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the making of the film which includes extensive footage of Laughton directing his cast.
An earlier DVD release of the film is available from Netflix.
The movie was previously released on VHS.
Reviews of other "unseen classics" it was my goal to watch in 2011: SHANE (1953), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), THE LADY EVE (1941), and BALL OF FIRE (1941).