Charles Laughton, 1955
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
“It’s a hard world for little things.”
Ben Harper accidentally kills two people during a robbery. Before he is arrested, he hides the money inside his young daughter’s doll and swears his two children, John and Pearl, to silence. He is executed in prison, but not before deliriously revealing to his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell, that the money is hidden somewhere near Ben’s home. Harper, a dangerous serial killer serving jail time for a minor offense, heads to Ben’s home in West Virginia and, convincing her that he is doing the Lord’s work, marries Ben’s widow Willa. Desperate and lonely, Willa falls in love with him, only to be coldly rebuked and then murdered when he realizes she doesn’t know about the hidden cash. Instead, he goes after John and Pearl, who flee in desperation down the river, into the wilderness with Harper hot on their heels.
Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is one of the finest American films ever made. This cross between film noir, German expressionism, fantasy-horror, and Southern Gothic is the only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton (The Private Lives of Henry VIII, This Land is Mine, The Paradine Case, The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution, and numerous other films), primarily due to the fact that both audiences and critics disliked the film or outright ignored it upon its release. It wasn’t recognized as a work of greatness until years later.
This nightmarish film, which has some truly frightening scenes and a sense of unbearable suspense that builds throughout, borrows heavily from the literary genre that would come to be known as Southern Gothic. Writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor penned novels about rural Southern culture – the heat, poverty, misery, racism, alcoholism, and inherent cruelty in day-to-day life. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, really only Southern Gothic tales explored the poverty and rural values that gripped so much of the country, despite the apparent period of wealth and bounty. Even film noir crossed over into Southern Gothic territory with works like Gun Crazy, Moonrise, They Live By Night, and the greatest in the subgenre, Night of the Hunter.
It combines many of the tropes found in Southern Gothic literature – a family living in poverty and a misguided father, driven to crime and executed for his misdeeds. The Reverend Harry Powell is the face of evil, a false preacher believing he is doing God’s work by murdering his way through the country, with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles. Powell is based on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer executed by hanging in 1932 for the murders of several people, including a mother and her children. Powell’s journey – a ruthless quest for wealth -- touches upon the rotten core of the American dream. The desire for success at with little work, expansion, and personal freedom regardless of the cost to others inspires Powell to murder a desperate and lonely woman, and to hunt down her two children for a doll packed with stolen money.
Though Powell – as the corrupter and seducer hiding behind a handsome and charming visage -- is one half of this narrative, the other half belongs to the children, Pearl and John. While Night of the Hunter is a story about murder, theft, and terror, it is also a children’s fairytale. Both poetic and fantastical, the children’s flight down the river takes up much of the film. This lengthy sequence is full of fantasy, horror, and imagination. Laughton breaks free somewhat from the film’s narrative structure and instead provides snippets of the children’s terror as they float down the river, desperate to survive.
The children, Peter Graves and Sally Jane Bruce, give solid performances, which is particularly surprising given just how much time they’re on screen. One of the film’s many strengths is its excellent cast, including Robert Mitchum in what may be his best performance. Mitchum, known for his noir, crime, and war film roles as the assured tough guy with a deep, lazy voice and bedroom eyes, was cast against type here. He is truly incredible as Powell and this is certainly one of the most iconic performances in American cinema. Not to be outdone is silent film star Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper. Though I generally find Rachel’s involvement in the film to be overly saccharine, she provides a needed contrast to the Powell and the film’s clueless, self-centered other adults who are far removed from the world of children.
These other adults are best summarized in Shelley Winters’ wonderful performance as the children’s mother. She is so full of loneliness, longing, and a desperate, clinging sexuality that she gives off an innocent, childlike quality, one that prevents her from parenting. Like the town’s other adults, she is obsessed with appearances. She trusts in Powell’s supposed role as Reverend and is determined that he will provide her salvation from isolation, poverty, and despair. Of course, in one of the film’s most shocking and beautiful moments, he murders her and stashes her body at the bottom of the lake, where her hair mingles with the seaweed.
Available from Criterion, Night of the Hunter comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything about it is perfect. The great writer and film critic James Agee (The African Queen) co-wrote the script with Laughton. Though there has been some debate about who was responsible for what, both men have left their stamp on the film’s complex and tragic story. The film also wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without the breathtaking, expressionistic cinematography from Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) and the haunting score from Walter Schumann, part classical, choral, and folk. He worked with Robert Mitchum on a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which will surely send a chill down your spine.