”Oh no, we are back to those oldies again”.
My initial reaction to “The Night of the Hunter” was not exactly positive. I do not mind old movies, but I have become so accustomed to the technical quality of movies of the mid-fifties that this movies felt like two steps backwards. Time for some good ol’ B&W in boxy 4x3 format and a depression age setting.
Ah, was I fooled.
This apparent retreat to old school noir and expressionistic shadows was in reality a tour de force of chill and menace, a horror story effective even today and a bible belt critique I did not expect from an American movie of 1955.
In short, this is one of the best movies I have seen from this particular year.
Charles Laughton was a spectacular actor who had specialized in small, ugly men and I remember him mostly for “Mutiny on the Bounty”. I did not know he had one go at directing as well. Unfortunately “The Night of the Hunter” did not hit it at the box office so he never directed a second movie and that is a shame. I loved his style, there is so much potential here.
In fact he hit it on many levels and I suspect this review will simply be an accounting of the genius of this movie.
First off there is the chill factor. The psychotic Harry Powell (Harry Mitchum) is this totally menacing character that threatens the lives of Pearl and John (Sally Jane Bruce and Billy Chapin) two children rendered fatherless and soon also motherless. Their isolation is highlighted by the fact that Harry is able to convince everybody else that he is a good guy. Only John knows that this is not so and Harry is like a bad dream, always lurking on the horizon. This chill is in fact so effective that “The Night of the Hunter” successfully enters the horror film genre. Harry is the guy you do not want to see when you look out the window.
The second stroke of genius is the casting. Whoever got the idea that Robert Mitchum should be the menacing Harry Powell made the pick of a life time. He is just awesome in this role. Mitchum can make Powell friendly and cozy, even trustworthy and in a heartbeat the most terrifying man you have ever known. It is this transition that makes him so spectacular. If you have only known him from his roles as cynical hero you owe yourself to see him in this one. Being a psychopath was Robert Mitchums true calling. I suppose Laughton knew exactly how to create a real badass.
Lillian Gish was another such brilliant casting. You remember Lillian Gish? She was one of the earliest female stars in D.W. Griffith movies, but later entirely disappeared from movies. In “The Night of the Hunter” she shows us she never lost the hang of it. It was so wonderful to have her back and I could not help look at her face and posture and compare her to the young actress forty years earlier and think how elusive time is. It was totally her.
Shelley Winters was another good pick. She is perfect as the wifey widow in the Bible belt. Tough and hardy but also gullible for a con man like Harry Powell.
I also love the setup that Powell is a psycho preacher who believes he does God’s bidding when he goes around killing women. His preachy manner totally works on people in these villages. He is a holy man, preaching the word of God and therefore on this basis a good and trustworthy character. These villagers are completely taken by this guy as they are conditioned to and never doubt him. It is pretty clear that Laughton was not fond of preachers and with the Harry Powell character he is giving them a punch in the stomach.
He goes a lot further than that though. He sets up the two characters of Powell and Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) as opposing forces of evil and good. Powell says the right things, but his actions are evil. Cooper on the other hand does the right things, but refrain from being dogmatic. It is as if saying the wrapping is deceiving, if is your actions and what is in your heart that matters. Cooper sees through the appearance of Powell and is unimpressed with the bulllshit, which is a lot more than you can say about the villagers. By believing this guy they were complicit in his crimes and the fury they are thrown into when he is finally exposed is them washing hands. Between the lines they are crying, it was not our fault, he deceived us. But it was their own righteousness that blinded them.
A last thing I will mention is the dreaminess of the voyage the children go through. When the viewpoint is moved to the children we see the world in their eye height. There is something symbolic of that journey they take and it is powerful to watch.
On the whole I enjoyed this movie very much. That it was overlooked in its time is quite amazing and I am still looking for a reason. This should have been a hit.