Written by: Davis Grubb (novel) & James Agee (screenplay)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Children are man at his strongest. They abide. They abide, and they endure."
About five or six years ago, I became interested in the various lists created by the American Film Institute, if only because I figured it'd be a good barometer with which to measure how many landmark films I'd seen at that point. As I went through lists, one film particularly caught my eye on the "100 Thrills" series, as I'd never heard of it before: The Night of the Hunter, and I filed it away as a film I needed to see. As fate would have it, the film showed up again on Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" special, which renewed my interest in the film. I found it odd that such a landmark horror film had operated under my radar for so many years, but the scene featured on the Bravo special ensured that it wouldn't go unwatched much longer, as there was something both captivating and terrifying about Robert Mitchum's character in that short excerpt. After seeing the film, I soon realized what all the hype was about, as Night of the Hunter was one of the most unique films I'd ever witnessed.
Harry Powell is the aforementioned character played by Robert Mitchum. Both a religious zealot and a serial killer, Powell finds himself in jail with Ben Harper, a local man who has been sentenced to death for his part in a robbery in which two men were killed. Just before being apprehended, Ben was able to leave the money hidden with his two children, John and Pearl. One night, Harry hears Ben muttering in his sleep and ascertains that he's hidden the money with the children; upon his release, Harry descends upon Ben's widow, Willa, and her children in an attempt to discover the money. What follows is a chilling cat and mouse game that serves as an allegory for timeless battles between youthful innocence and pure, unadulterated evil.
Described by director Naughton as a "nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale," Night of the Hunter is a captivating blend of a fairy tale and a horror film. This is obvious from the opening credits, which open with an ominous overture of brass instruments before giving way to children singing a song reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. The film itself then continues to play out in a very dream-like and mesmerising tone, and this is mostly due to Laughton's visionary style, which displays an influence of German Expressionism in its stark lighting, unique angles, and distorted perspectives. The film has also been classified as film noir over the years, no doubt due to this visual style, as the story itself isn't necessarily traditional noir material. This film also displays influences from a variety of other sources, such as gothic horror and folk tales of the American south. The famous sequence wherein John and Pearl wend their way down the river surrounded by seemingly oversized wildlife to emphasize their loneliness and fear is reminiscent of a Mark Twain novel.
While the film's visual and tonal style is an important factor in the film's effectiveness, the most memorable aspect of the film is the title character himself. A seemingly self-appointed preacher who bears the words "love" and "hate" above his knuckles on each hand, Harry Powell manages to be both a mesmerising and chilling character. Exhibiting a natural charisma that endears him to the townspeople, Harry gains the trust of everyone except John, who is wary of the stranger from the moment he meets him. Behind closed doors, however, Harry unleashes his true intentions as he terrifies Willa, John, and Pearl in search of the money.
Everything about the character is perfect, from his evangelical drawl to his appearance as a kindly preacher (a true wolf in sheep's clothing, as it were). When he first appears outside the children's window singing a hymn, his exaggerated silhouette bathes the room in shadows as an eerie foreshadowing of the horror to come. This, ultimately, is the key to the character's effectiveness, as Harry Powell represents a child's deepest fears: the stranger who stands outside your window at night, observing your every movement. That said, there is also an almost demonic element to Powell as well. There's a moment where John observes Powell riding in the distance, causing him to wonder aloud if the hunter ever sleeps, and you almost want to believe that he doesn't, as he'll seemingly stop at nothing to find John and Pearl. Mitchum's performance as Powell is one of the finest in American cinema, and serves as an eerie precursor to the slashers and madmen that would soon haunt American horror in the 1960s.
That said, Mitchum isn't the only star here. Shelley Winters gives an excellent performance as Willa, and the two child stars, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, give the film a solid footing. Any time a horror film is centered around children, it can be a hit-or-miss proposition as far as the acting goes, but Night of the Hunter is definitely a hit in this regard. Long-time silent screen star Lillian Gish also shows up in the third act and delivers an underrated performance that seems to get overshadowed by Mitchum's. Mitchum and Gish share little screen time together, but these fleeting moments are among the most powerful in the film, as it's clear that Gish's Miss Rachel is the antithesis to Mitchum; just as Powell is relentless in his pursuit of the children, Miss Rachel is a constant guardian, the protective angel to Powell's demon.
It seems almost absurd to consider Night of the Hunter to be an underrated gem considering the high praise it's garnered over the years. However, it seems to go largely unmentioned among horror circles for whatever reason. Make no mistake, though--Laughton himself claimed he "set out to make audiences scream," and he did so by making one of the most suspenseful films ever made. Of course, the film is bloodless; however, it does contain more than a few images that were haunting and even grisly for its day. Ultimately, however, it's the foreboding, ominous nature of the film that lingers after the film's conclusion, as the film as a whole is a masterwork of taut storytelling and chilling imagery that hasn't been equalled by many films in the 50 years since its release. It's unfortunate that this film marked the only time Laughton stepped behind the camera to direct, as this is certainly one of the great directorial debuts of all time; like so many revered classics, this one was both a critical and box office failure when it was released. Luckily, time has been kind to it and it's now rightfully regarded as a cinematic triumph that manages to blend a fable-like quality with sinister undertones to tell a classic tale of good vs. evil.
The Night of the Hunter was previously available on a skimpy MGM disc with the incorrect aspect ratio. Criterion has rectified this with their Blu-ray release of the film. Not only is the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio restored, but the audio is rendered in an uncompressed mono track. There's also a wealth of extras, including an audio commentary with the second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F.X. Feeny, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones. "Charles Laughton Directs" features over two hours worth of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, while another documentary features interviews with critics and crew. Rounding out the disc is a video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, a clip from the Ed Sullivan Show featuring the film's cast, a fifteen minute episode from the BBC Show Moving Pictures, an archival interview with the film's cinematographer, gallery sketches by author Davis Grubb, the film's theatrical trailer, and a video conversation between Gitt and Leonard Maltin. Finally, a nice book is housed in the packaging that features two critical essays about the film. It's a long overdue, but it's another fine effort from Criterion. It'll cost you a bit more than most releases, but it's worth every penny for the film alone. This one needs to be seen by horror aficionados everywhere. I can't praise The Night of the Hunter enough except to give it the highest rating here at OTH. Essential!
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