It isn’t easy being a widow. Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) finds that out the hard way when her good intentioned husband Ben (Peter Graves) finds himself hanging from the gallows after robbing a local bank. The movie is set during the depression, and bank robbing at the time was about the noblest form of outlawry to be found, especially to many down and out sodbusters who blamed greedy bankers for sucking up their entire life savings while they had to sit and watch their families nearly starve on a day to day basis, so Ben, likely being one of those very same people probably thought he was simply taking his money back in any event. Before he is caught and sentenced, Ben Harper hides his take from the heist and informs his children Johnny and Pear of its location. He pleads with them in their final moments together to keep its location a secret. It is not the children he should’ve worried about though, but his rather inconvenient (or convenient for the plot’s sake anyway) habit of talking in his sleep. Especially since his cellmate on death row is a traveling con artist named Harry Powell who most of the time pretends to be a man of the cloth. Powell finds out about the robbery and learns that the children know of its whereabouts, and as soon as he is released makes his way down to meet the family of the dear departed Mr. Harper in his capacity as a man of God, simply trying to lend a helping hand. (More on his hands later.)
Robert Mitchum could play cool like nobody’s business. He could also play creepy like nobody’s business as well, and creepy is exactly what he plays in Night of the Hunter. Everything about the Reverend Harry Powell is downright creepy. He’s so creepy that you wonder how he manages to finagle so many of the well meaning adults in this movie to take him in so fully and trust him so completely, until you realize that is, that this movie doesn’t take place in the real world. This movie inhabits the dreamscape of childhood nightmares. And what a mesmerizing dreamscape it is. It was the debut effort by director Charles Laughton, who while he had a long and interesting career in the movies, never directed another movie after this one, making this picture his ‘Catcher in the Rye’ so to speak. Combining childhood fears with adult themes like religious fanaticism Night of the Hunter is a movie unlike nearly any you will see from its time and place. It was so far ahead of its time that it left critics and most audiences in its heyday baffled as to what to make of it. This movie was simply too dark and ethereal for the Ozzie and Harriett crowd of the 1950s. Over the decades though the movie has gained a significant cult following who have kept it in the discussion of the all time great film noir movies.
One thing that sticks with me from this movie is Robert Mitchum’s slow paused way of speaking, such as when he eerily yells down the basement steps to the two hiding children or “Chillll . . . dren” as he says it. Then there’s the similar laconic and separated way that he sings those old traditional religious hymns. Robert Mitchum casually strolling along tapping his Bible and humming “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (Lean…..ing, Lean…ing) is to me a thousand times creepier than old hockey-puss Jason Voorhees stomping around the woods to his famous musical score with his rusty old machete in hand. I can’t review any Robert Mitchum movie without taking a couple paragraphs and devoting them to simply praising his ability and gushing about his general awesomeness. Along with Humphrey Bogart, Mitchum is hands down my favorite noir actor of all time. He could play the fast talking hood like he did in another classic noir with Kirk Douglas called ‘Out of the Past’ with style and ease or he could slow things down and just get downright scary like he does here. Mitchum set the standard in so many different ways for both the genre of film noir and just acting in general. This movie may be Mitchum’s most famous and iconic role, and needless to say his performance is pitch perfect. Like Robert Duvall did a generation later, Robert Mitchum mastered the art of ‘acting without acting’… You never caught that guy “trying” to act. He just did it. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, and I find myself unable to improve upon the sentiment” Mitchum is uncannily right for the role, with his long face, his gravel voice, and the silky tones of a snake-oil salesman.”
Mitchum also does a great job in getting the most out of the inexperienced child actors he had to work with here. The director reportedly could not stand working with these children, which understandably could be a burden I imagine (especially for a first time director) but Mitchum corralled both of them into giving wholly respectable performances for the standard of child actors in their day. Shelly Winters plays the obedient trusting wife and her character is perhaps the most tragic one of the entire movie. The other big maternal figure in the movie is the grandmotherly character of Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, the lady who runs the home for runaways that John and Pearl escape to. Her part of the movie is the one piece of the puzzle that I didn’t and still don’t really care for, and it is the part that bookends the movie. It opens with her appearing with all of the children in the sky like an angelic being, and it closes with her being the would-be hero of the movie, even though she is absent from it for the most part. That whole deal just felt kind of tacked on, although she is a much needed character from the point of view of the children and their ongoing nightmare. In a sense her two bookended appearances represent the pre and post nightmare parts of the movie. She is the only adult un-swayed by Powell’s convincing con game and the children’s only help fighting against him.
Pastor Powell has two infamous tattoos that he uses in this movie to parlay a parable. On his right hand is the word love and on his left hand is the word hate. In a lesser movie this would come off as a comic and desperate attempt to punctuate whatever moral point the director was trying to make but here it works flawlessly in Powell’s dog and pony show. Powell in this movie is like a low-level Elmer Gentry, although unlike Gentry who lacked any faith whatsoever you get the sense that Powell does indeed have some kind of perverse distortion of the Christian faith that leads him to do the things he does. All of the adults in the movie trust him without question to their own peril. It is only the children, and the boy especially who question him. This goes in support of the movie’s theme of being basically a childhood nightmare brought to life. This movie is the nightmare in which the monster is chasing you and all of the adults keep telling you everything is “okay.” Keeping in mind that this movie is basically a nightmare also allows some leaps in logic to be overlooked to me such as just how quickly Powell gets the children’s mother to trust and then marry him.
Both the story and the cinematography of this movie work perfectly together to create the aforementioned dreamscape quality. The best example of this is the way the water shines and the general mystic and mythic nature of all the animals during the slow plodding chase scene in which the children flee from Pastor Powell in a boat that they paddle downriver. Also the underwater scene in which a recently departed character is shown underwater with her hair flowing up like a living doll struck me as both a strikingly beautiful shot but an amazing accomplishment considering the technology available at the time this film was made. All noir uses and is nearly defined by its utilization of lighting and cinematography. Night of the Hunter takes that usual sparse and fundamental style and turns it into a true work of surrealist art.
The character of Powell was actually based on a real life traveling con-artist serial killer who posed as a man of the cloth, married young women, took them for all they were worth and then disposed of them. This movie is a great mix of that classic noir realism (or surrealism as it were) that shows the world as a hard and unforgiving place where fate takes characters on dark journeys toward their doom, and as a complete work of fictional expressionism that depicts a dream world complete with all sorts of askew camera angles, stylistic dialogue. This is a world where fear is personified. As both a classic piece of noir filmmaking and a just downright creepy movie I can’t recommend this one highly enough. If you’re looking for something to pop in near Halloween this would be a fabulous choice. Night of the Hunter contains great atmosphere, great directing, and one of the all time great performances by Robert Mitchum who is as effortless as ever as the reverend Harry Powell.
Night of the Hunter gets a four out of five: GREAT.