Initially, Night of the Hunter (1955) was not a critical nor box-office success, and Charles Laughton never directed another film. However, over the years, it has come to be regarded as one of the best movies ever made. I watched it a couple of months ago, sad for missing it when it was first screened in our local theater. A month ago, I had the opportunity to see it again because I believed it deserved to be watched in a movie theater. It’s no wonder that the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected this movie in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, following, of course, Citizen Kane.
Based on Davis Grubb’s novel, the film draws on the true story of an American serial killer named Harry Powers, hanged in West Virginia, who lured his victims through Lonely Hearts ads. In Laughton’s adaptation, self-appointed reverend Harry Powell justifies his murders of various women by claiming he’s doing God’s work.
Rev. Harry Powell: Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord…
Being arrested for car theft, he ends up sharing the same cell as Ben Harper, who robbed a bank and murdered two men, but the authorities never retrieved the money. Harper gave the money to his children John and Pearl, who promise not to reveal to anyone where it’s hidden, even to their mother. Deranged Harry Powell hears about the money and heads to Harper’s hometown, woos his widow and marries her. The kids, hiding the money, are left with a misogynistic terrifying man who’s desperate to find out where the money is. After their mother is being murdered by the false preacher, he threatens John and Pearl, who run away down the river in an old boat.
Robert Mitchum plays his role perfectly. The film sometimes feels like a psychological thriller, and in some scenes, Mitchum’s facial expressions seem to be overly emphasized like we’re in a some kind of a comedy. Sometimes he’s a cold-blooded killer, and sometimes he’s just a caricature. Tall and handsome, yet cold-blooded and menacing. The film is leaning on the silent-movie era, which is exemplified by its strong expressionistic style. Mitchum’s character doesn’t need to speak at all. He’s able to tell a horrifying story using only his face. Contempt. Greed. Spite. Pride. Hate disguised as love. Laughton surrounded Powell in a menacing silhouette throughout the film, playing with the lighting to create a terrifying omnipresence. The best example is his shadow appearing on the children’s bedroom wall, reminiscent of the high points in German expressionist films.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie depicts a tragedy. The children’s mother is at the bottom of the river, after being murdered by Powell. Sitting in an old Ford, the currents make her hair drift like the underwater weeds. She seems blissfully at peace. And her throat has been slit. This was the last shot filmed, and the actor Don Beddoe thought it was Shelley Winters, who played the widow Harper, holding her breath, and not a dummy.
A biblical fairy tale occurs when children escape the raging lunatic. While they’re travelling along the river, we see all sorts of animals at the banks as the children are getting to safety. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, used deep-focus lenses to film the scene with the children passing the spider web: Powell’s web of lies cannot hurt them anymore. It seems so easy to forget we’re watching a story of murder. And some scenes are there to make you laugh. When children find sanctuary in Rachel Cooper’s house, an old lady who takes care of abandoned children, Powell finds them but Cooper chases him away with a rifle. Powell runs away gesturing and producing noises like a cartoon character. This film manages to combine horrible scenes with almost pastoral scenery, in an level that children can grasp the best.
One of the most amazing scenes I have ever seen inside a film happens in its last third. Powell is usually singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms when he’s about to do commit an atrocious act. He’s sitting in front of Ms. Cooper’s porch trying to terrify her and the children. Camera focuses on Powell’s menacing presence, sitting in front of the house, his face unshrouded from the shadows. He starts singing. Camera slowly rolls, showing Ms. Cooper sitting on a chair holding a rifle. She joins him and starts singing. Leaning on Jesus, she sings. She’s not afraid of him, but whoever he’s leaning onto, that’s not her Jesus. The night is silent and the only thing we hear is the song sung by a serial killer and an old lady protecting her children.
Lillian Gish was a silent-movie star, perfect for this film. When she asked Laughton why he wanted her for that part, he replied: “When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again.” If you want to sit straight for a change, this is the best choice.
Couchman, Jeffrey (2009). The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. Northwestern University Press.
Enge, Sigurd (2009). The Night of the Hunter: Noirish or film noir? MA Thesis.
Jones, Preston Neal (2002). Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. New York: Limelight Editions.
Rainer, Peter (2002). The Night of the Hunter. The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films.