Director: Charles Laughton
Writer: James Agee
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Peter Graves
The Night of the Hunter is a crime thriller from 1955, that’s directed by Charles Laughton and written by James Agee. It’s based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb. When the film was first released it was a massive flop with both critics and audiences, to the point that Laughton never directed a film again. Over the years it’s been reappraised and is now considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made, influencing countless filmmakers in the decades since.
It follows Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a con man pretending to be a reverend. While he’s in prison for driving a stolen car, he’s cellmates with Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who had murdered two people and stolen around ten thousand dollars in cash that hasn’t been recovered. Harper takes his secret to the grave with only his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) knowing where the money is, and to find it Powell worms his way into their mother, Willa’s (Shelley Winters) life pretending to be a reverend who knew her late-husband while he was in prison. He marries her and tries to find the location of the money from the children, while masquerading as a stand-up citizen to everyone else in town.
Robert Mitchum is absolutely fantastic as Harry Powell. He’s instantly charming and lovable and at the same time completely terrifying. In one of the opening scenes you see him watching a dancer on stage, while playing with a knife in his coat pocket, and it tells you everything you need to know about the character. As soon as he finds his way into Willa’s life you know this isn’t going to end well for her. He’s incredibly sinister, but at the same time it’s easy to see why everyone is won over by him. At one point, Willa is practically brainwashed into believing that he’s there to save her family. The only one who sees straight thought his act is John, who knows that he’s just after the money, but as a child no one will listen or care so he just has to protect his sister at all costs.
Visually, this film is an absolute masterpiece. It’s stunning to watch. You can feel the influence from silent German expressionist films almost straight away. Foreboding shadows, angular buildings, and a dreamlike feel to some of the sets, where neon signs aren’t connected to buildings, and Willa’s bed seems to be a step removed away from the rest of the set, pulled forward and reflecting how fragmented she is. On one hand she’s still mourning the loss of her husband, which she at one point blames herself for, and on the other she’s trying to give her children the best life possible. The way that Harry treats her is full-on mental abuse, and she can’t even see it.
One of the best parts of the film, and again visually brilliant, is where John and Pearl are escaping from Harry on a little rowboat down the river. The nail-biting tension is at complete odds with the calm and naturalistic setting. The camera focuses on frogs, and rabbits on the riverbank as they sail on past. Rabbits reappear later in the film, as they’re hunted by an owl, reflecting how close Harry is at that point to getting what he wants.
For a film that’s heading towards seventy years old, it doesn’t feel dated at all. The visuals are stylish, the performances are brilliant, and the story is timeless. Supposedly there’s a remake on the way, but there’s no way it can hold a candle to the original.
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