Monday, March 19, 2012

The Night of the Hunter All About the Prey


Religion has been used in numerous films as a symbol for what is good and what is evil. When used effectively, religion can make a film very uplifting or extremely chilling. Charles Laughton’s thrilling film, The Night of the Hunter, falls into the latter category. Laughton’s film features two characters that have dutifully follows the teaching of The Bible, but interpret it in vastly different ways.

Based on the novel by Davis Grubb, and set in 1930s West Virgin, The Night of the Hunter is a cautionary tale of the evils that greed and misguided religious beliefs can evoke. Self-proclaimed preacher, and criminal, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) finds himself sharing a prison cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper is scheduled to be hanged for being involved in a robbery where two people were killed. Though Harper is in jail, the stolen money was never recovered. Upon his release from jail, Powell sets out to find the money. Convinced that Harper’s children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know where the money is, Powell uses his charisma to win over their mother Willa (Shelley Winters). Untrusting of Powell from day one, John soon finds himself, and his sister, in grave danger.

Although the film was released in 1955, it still manages to maintain genuine chills even today. The reason the film has held up so well after all this time is due in part to the wonderful use of shadows throughout the film. Laughton, with the help of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, manages to create several tense moments by simply shooting the characters in silhouettes. In one scene John and Pearl are awoken by the sound of Powell coming up the path. As the children hide, the silhouette of Powell on a horse slowly goes by in the distance. Even Powell’s first appearance at the Harper residence consists of a shadow of his head and hat beaming through the window. It is simple moments like these that really enhance the overall effectiveness of the film.


Watching The Night of the Hunter, one cannot help but notice the influence it has had on cinema in general. The film clearly left its mark on directors such as Spike Lee who paid homage to this film in his influential film, Do the Right Thing. The character of Radio Raheem wears “Love” and “Hate” brass knuckles as a direct reference to the tattoos barring the same words on Powell’s knuckles. Although there are numerous examples of elements that have been lifted from this film by others, one of the things few have been able to replicate is Mitchum’s portrayal of Powell.

Mitchum not only single-handedly carries the bulk of the film with his menacing performance, but he creates one of the great cinematic villains through his ability to charm both the characters in the film and the audience watching. He can go from frightening to charming in the blink of an eye. At first Powell merely seems to be nothing more than a con artist, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that he actually believes half of the stuff he is spouting. The fascinating thing is that Powell is quick to justify his killings as something The Lord would understand, especially since “there are so many murders in The Bible”. This is why Powell is such an interesting contrast to the character of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).


Ms. Cooper uses The Bible to teach the morals and self-worth in the stray children she takes care off. The confrontation between Ms. Cooper and Powell, which makes up most of the last act, represents the battle between good and evil. Laughton wants to show how thin the line is between these two points of view. In one brilliant scene, both Powell and Ms. Cooper find themselves singing the exact same song while Powell plots to get into the house and Ms. Cooper stands guard. The Night of the Hunter does not shy away from the notion that in the wrong hands, religion can be a dangerous thing. This is especially true when it becomes apparent how easily Willa and the rest of the town folk fall into a cult like mentality based on Powell’s sermons.

Though an exceptional film it must be noted that The Night of the Hunter is not without its flaws, even if they are minor. The most notable misstep is in the subplot with Ruby (Gloria Castillo). There is not enough insight into her character’s history to make the audience truly connect with her. The majority of her story arc feels uneven and at times pointless. Again, this is only a minor blemish on an otherwise outstanding film. Thanks to Robert Mitchum’s deliciously evil performance, The Night of the Hunter is a film that is still every bit as chilling today as it was when it was released back in the 50’s.




The Night of the Hunter is part of our "The Must See List" series. The film was recommended by Rich

8 comments:

  1. Looking forward to seeing this. If it's good enough for Do The Right Thing to nick from, it's good enough for me!

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    1. It seems several directors nicked elements from this film, which I guess is the best type of compliment you can give a film.

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  2. Good review. If I remember right, this was the only film that actor Laughton ever directed. It was almost as if he did one to see if he could, then he was satisfied.

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    1. If you are only going to make one film, this is a perfect one to have as an example of your talent. It is crazy to think of where Laughton’s directing career could have gone after this film.

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  3. Loved the piece. One of my favorite movies. Some of the most striking black and white imagery I've ever seen.

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    1. The black and white really holds up well in this film. It really adds a nice layer to the film.

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  4. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. It wasn't on first viewing, though - I just thought it was pretty good then. Every time I've seen it, it's moved up a few notches, and now I think it's in my top twenty. It's just so WEIRD for a 1950s film, with such a strange amalgamation of crime drama, gothic horror, religious parable, film noir, German Expressionism, even absurd comedy for moments!

    And I'm kind of glad that Laughton never directed another film. Where could he have gone from here?

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    1. I was also taken by the various styles and tones that were thrown into the film. It is darker than you would expect from a 1950s film. At one point in the film Powell was getting ready to knife Pearl, just the idea of casually killing a child seems extremely daring by the standards of that time.

      As for Laughton, I wonder if he might have become another Hitchcock? Or would his theatre background lead him to make more dramatic or comedic films?

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