The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
This article is part of a series ofself- imposed movie reviews set in the participation of this film critic to the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Club. It is an attempt at catching up the reviews that I’ve missed in my recent period of inactivity in the blogosphere.
The only directing credit of respected actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is an uncompromised masterpiece of visual beauty, perfect acting, and sociological malaise. The choice of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell who preaches by marrying his former cellmate’s, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and trying to get the stolen money the husband has been hanged for is perfect in this bizarre film. A difficult actor like Mitchum that had a mitigated reputation brings something that no other actor of the time would have had. His gravel voice, tire eyes, and debonaire attitude helps to add that he represents evil in an agent of God’s costume. Getting back on the plot, Powell is sure that Harper has told his children where he hid the money.
While being summarized in a very simple way here, the themes of religious belief, repress sexuality, and the duality of good and bad are exploited in some landmarks scenes of the film. For anyone who has seen or not the movie can recognize it by Powell’s tattoed knuckles of the right hand with Love and left hand with Hate. The most distinguished scene of the movie is the moment when the Reverend explains to John the meaning of his tattoos.
Another particularly noticeable scene is after the wedding when Willa wants to have sex with her new husband, the reverend, and he refuses drastically. It is obvious that the new wife has been fooled and the motivations of Powell are greater than consuming his marriage and take advantage of a lonely widow. In the scene, Willa is almost begging and few men would refuse sexual intercourse on the night of their wedding. It brings up how inhuman is the reverend.
The Night of the Hunter is a film that is difficult to label and is often forgotten because of this and the fact that Laughton directed this only film. Sometimes categorized as a Film Noir because it was shot during that era. It is also a film that recalls Horror, Drama, and even a little bit of Expressionnism. One of the reasons the movie has been between waters is because of the weird and sublime cinematography of Stanley Cortez who also shot Orson Welles’ The Magnificient Ambersons. The way he shot Lillian Gish almost as an angel protecting the children and Shelley Winters in the car at the bottom of the river is also a superbly haunting shot. For anyone who has seen the film at least one time, so many scenes and frames will stick in their head and let a permanent print. Just like a memorable dream The Night of the Hunter seems to employ the rules of a dream. Like Roger Ebert wrote about the film that the scene where the children are on a raft and trying to get away as fast as possible and Powell is on the shore walking slowly but still catching up on them is pure illogic but so dream-like.
Everytime I sit in front of The Night of the Hunter I wonder why it is not on more lists of the greatest films of all time because this is a masterpiece of pure Art and also a great entertainment that has been copied so many times but never as great as the original. The first time I watched it was because it was on Mediafilm’s list of masterpiece and I loved it rightaway. It would have never made my top 10 films but it is one of the films I enjoyed everytime I had the chance to watch. Another fact about The Night of the Hunter was that studios didn’t wanted to release it and the public didn’t responded well either at its initial release. However, it passed through time and is now celebrated. But sure it always needs a little push to get to the top of the cinephiles’ lists. Highly recommended.