THE SCENES… THE STORY… THE STARS. BUT ABOVE ALL – THE SUSPENSE!
Charles Laughton had never directed a movie before. Sure, he was an acclaimed actor and had won an Oscar; he had also directed plays on Broadway, so the leap wasn’t that enormous. Some of those plays were produced by Paul Gregory and when he read Davis Grubb’s novel ”The Night of the Hunter” and decided to produce a film adaptation his buddy Laughton accepted the challenge of directing it.
When the movie was released, the critics were unhappy and audiences stayed away. Laughton never directed another movie. Which is a shame, because this is a masterpiece.
In rural West Virginia in the 1930s, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has just robbed a bank and killed people in the process. He rushes home and hides the money inside his daughter Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) rag doll; he tells her and his son John (Billy Chapin) to never reveal their secret. When police arrive, Ben is arrested and subsequently sentenced to hang for his crimes. As he spends his final days in prison, he gets to know a man called Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-proclaimed preacher, who unsuccessfully tries to find out where Ben hid the money. All Harry knows is that Ben’s children are the key to the mystery. The ”preacher” is in prison for stealing a car, but he’s actually a deranged serial killer. When he’s released, Harry sets his sight on the small community where the Harper family lives…
Mitchum’s greatest performance
This is a dark stuff, perhaps a tad too dark for 1950s audiences? It is best viewed as a fairy tale for adults with two innocent children trying to escape the clutches of a big bad wolf who tricks not only their mother but the whole town. Of course, the sick part of it is that Harry Powell firmly believes that he’s a good Christian – at least up to a point, because he’s sane enough not to reveal to anyone his true intentions, to kill the children and steal the money.
Mitchum delivers the greatest performance of his career as a deeply religious man who views women as sinful creatures; he looks like he’s having a lot of fun with a wicked larger-than-life character. Tattooed on his knuckles are the words ”LOVE” and ”HATE”, two extremes that he seems to believe he can fuse; blessed with the gift of oratory, Powell is the man you need if you want to start a cult. John and Pearl are the only ones to see through him; their mother (Shelley Winters) becomes an easy victim, but when the children are forced to escape later on they find a strong ally in another woman, the elderly Rachel Cooper who knows how to handle a rifle. She’s played by silent-film star Lillian Gish, who’s very effective as a counterweight to Mitchum’s lethal charm. The filmmakers introduce a certain amount of psychology in their portrait of young John’s relationship with male role models, but the sheer amount of tension combined with humorously absurd ingredients is what will have you at the edge of your seat.
It’s easy to draw comparisons with Hitchcock movies, like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) thematically, and visually in the way some of the suspense scenes are staged. Art director Hilyard Brown and cinematographer Stanley Cortez deserve mention for how well they have realized Laughton’s desire to make something that looks like a German Expressionist film from the 1920s.
There are so many beautiful and terrifying shots throughout the film, such as the one where the children are escaping from Powell in a boat and we see a huge spider’s web in the forefront, an apt symbol of the preacher himself. That scene is accompanied by a sweet lullaby. Much like the message of Mitchum’s knuckles, Walter Schumann’s music combines wildly contrasting emotions in exciting ways.
The Night of the Hunter 1955-U.S. 93 min. B/W. Produced by Paul Gregory. Directed by Charles Laughton. Screenplay: James Agee. Novel: Davis Grubb. Cinematography: Stanley Cortez. Music: Walter Schumann. Art Direction: Hilyard Brown. Cast: Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, James Gleason.
Trivia: Remade as a TV movie, Night of the Hunter (1991).
Last word: “I wanted to shoot the picture there in West Virginia and Shelley is, you know, anything but a West Virginia smalltown farm girl. I said, ‘Why Shelley Winters?’ They said, ‘We can get her for 25,000.’ I said, ‘Oh well, by all means.'” (Mitchum, Film Comment)