The Night of the Hunter

Dir: Charles Laughton, 1955. Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason. Classics.
The Night of the Hunter

Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.     

For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.

Set during the Depression somewhere in the Midwest, the film stars Mitchum as Harry Powell, a violent creep in the state pen who is prone to issuing pious dictums to his follow inmates. He’s a preacher who seems repulsed by sex and obsessed with money. Hearing about the widow of an inmate who was arrested and put to death for robbery, he thinks he can find the hidden money that the man left behind. When he gets out of prison, he sets out to find the family. None of this, though, is rendered strictly in a recognizably classic-Hollywood-narrative sort of way. The images have a quality both dreamlike and terrifying. A steam powered locomotive lurches through the plains and we know Harry Powell is going to leave a trail of destruction wherever he’s headed.

Once he finds the widow Willa (played by Shelley Winters) and her children he mugs hard for their respect even though none of them seem particularly enamored of him. Still, the townsfolk, led by a particularly shrewish ice cream parlor proprietress, practically force Willa to commit to starting over with Powell. Soon, though, Willa overhears him threatening her daughter Pearl about where the money is hidden, and Powell is exposed as a dangerous fraud. This occurrence, combined with his revulsion to sex, lead to tragic ends. You’ve never seen a death rendered so enchantingly strange as Willa’s body drifting, roped to her car at the bottom of the lake, right where Harry Powell put her. With her blonde hair floating up and her serene expression, it’s one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen.

Once Willa is out of the way the story becomes a strange hybrid of Grapes of Wrath and Grimm’s Fairy Tales with the now orphaned children, John and Pearl, taking off on their own in a small boat to escape from Powell, who is intent on murdering them. The first adult in the film who doesn’t seem to be a predatory psychopath, insufferable hypocrite, or a tragic victim who leaves the children abandoned, suddenly appears in the form of Lilian Gish. She’s a feisty old woman living near the river, raising kids who were forced to head out on their own because of the widespread poverty of the plains.  The film changes once again when it begins to focus on the lives of the children and the love denied them from the wider world, but which they now find with Gish’s mother hen protector. But this is still a suspense thriller and Harry Powell will stop at nothing to catch up with the kids.  

The Night of the Hunter is a film every bit as astonishing as Citizen Kane, or really any of the best Welles stuff. Like Welles, Laughton brings an itchy, pent up quality to his directing, as if he’s aching to really unload his cinematic bag of tricks and show us what a film can be. He melds--chaotically in some sense--German expressionism, silent horror, social realism, the scariest kind of fairy tale, a scathing critique of Pentecostal zealotry, and a real fight between good and evil represented by a tough but frail old woman and a psychopathic preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. This is American mythology of the best, most potent kind.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 10, 2014 11:24am
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