The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce
Review by Jordan
To review a film is often seen as critiquing it; observing it’s intent in alignment with it’s strengths and weaknesses and forging an opinion that is then shared with a readership base. A reviewer should be impartial, unbiased and fair, and their points articulate and well supported as they tackle works both renowned and disdained, from the prodigiously recognized highs of Orson Wells’ classic Citizen Kane (1941) to the almost inconceivable lows of Edward D. Wood Junior.
Throughout the history of film there would be very few realized narratives that can now avoid critical dissection, existing as holistic examples of the moving image unanimously identified as respectable, untouchable. The chilling, thematic and unclassifiable The Night of the Hunter is one such example.
The directorial debut of esteemed actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter also stands as his sole film-making credit thanks to a negative reception and a general consensus of confusion given its unprecedented style and mood. Shame, as even in one film Laughton displays an intellectual touch paired with a Gothic stylistic flourish that could’ve been further utilized in later projects. In the close to 60 years since it’s release however, and despite still being recognized as a cult film, this story praising the endurance of children has garnered a reputation at once tremendous and deserving among the initiated, with the Late Roger Ebert labeling it “one of the greatest of all American films” and citing it as one of his “Great Movies.”
Laughton’s masterpiece follows the brooding, charming and murderous Reverend Harry Powell, a psychotic man of God who explains his religion as “one the Almighty and I worked out betwixt us” and marries lonely widows before killing them, taking their money and moving onto the next town. We meet him shortly before he is arrested for car theft whilst drawing his switchblade in a burlesque house, after which he shares a prison cell with bank robber Ben Harper who is awaiting hanging, and has hidden his $10,000 loot somewhere back home, a sum of blood money that could build one fine chapel. Once Harper has hung and he is out of prison, Powell enchants his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and before not too long is engaged and married to her, all the while threatening her children John and Pearl (one of the most endearing young characters I’ve witnessed) and demanding to be told where the money is…
Doomed from the start (her wedding night is in contention for the worst of all time), Willa is eventually murdered and John and Pearl must flee down the river in search of seemingly unattainable safety, the Reverend following like a living nightmare, silhouetted in the distance and crooning hymns in the moonlight: Leaning… leaning… safe and secure from all alarms, leaning… leaning… leaning on the everlasting arms.
It’s not a matter of if he will find them, it’s when, and whether or not love will win it’s eternal struggle with hate as tattooed on the knuckle of our conniving antagonist, or if left-hand hate will have a rare victory.
Transitioning from suspense thriller, to menacing yet beautifully rich fairy tale and finally film noir, The Night of the Hunter manages to contain some of the most frightening images of all time, as well as a third act showcasing the strength of women in the face of matriarchal adversity and two children (among others) that demonstrate the power that young ones have to overcome great trials. It is a truly phenomenal film that remains as original and powerful now as it was in 1955, painstakingly framed in glorious black and white and edited to jarring perfection, and is the very definition of must-see cinema.
Weird it may be (as evidenced by the appearance of a cane toad and some rabbits in close-up by a steadily flowing river carrying two lost children), but in the best way possible.