The Night of the Hunter: Fear, God, and a Child's Nightmare

 


Charles Laughton taking up the director’s chair for the only time in his lifetime before being discouraged by his own doubts and a commercial failure resulted in one of the greatest films ever made, it’s just too bad that he didn’t direct anymore. The Night of the Hunter constantly finds its place in lists of the great films, and for me, I constantly list it as one of my favorite noir films, one of my favorite horror films, and one of my favorite films ever, a picture that a feeble-minded audience failed to categorize for the simple fact that it is exceptional, and gave up on it until the benefit of retrospect granted it back the infinite praise it completely deserves. A good friend of mine, and a fellow writer by the name of Jacob Calta, once called it “a silent film blessed with the miracle of sound” and what better way to describe it: a film deeply rooted in German Expressionism with a demonic disposition and a nightmarish atmosphere.

The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum in one of his most powerful performances as Harry Powell, a self-appointed priest who also happens to be a bit of a murderous psychopath; crimes that range from car theft to killing women he dubs as sinful lead him to a prison where he meets a death row inmate who has hidden a large sum of money and who will leave behind a wife and two children after his execution. After his release, he makes his way to the village where the widow and the kids are and tries to infiltrate their lives to get access to that money, while slowly losing his patience and succumbing to his violent nature.

Charles Laughton, a first-time director, studied silent film as reference before making The Night of the Hunter, and alongside cinematographer Stanley Cortez, they made a “talkie” have the intrigue and beauty of something made in Germany in the 1920’s. Incredible attention is given to the way the film looks: half the scenes are shot in stark black and white, gritty, dark, with rich and deep shadows, nightmarish segments where darkness overclouds all else; the other half, mostly comprising scenes shot on the river, are filmed to be the screen incarnation of a children’s book gone hellish, dreamy and almost soothing, and giving attention to things only a child would perceive, these segments, meant to provide a change from the frightening presence of Harry Powell, end up only adding up to its sheer strength simply because of his absence.

I said it a couple of paragraphs ago, and I’ll say it again: what an incredible performance Robert Mitchum gave here. He plays Harry Powell in the most bone-chilling way perceivable in every scene: when he needs to be composed and putting on the nice image for the village folks, he is warm and polite, with an occasional smirk to betray his nature; when he lets go of his sheep façade and reveals the wolf within, he is a terrifying presence, amplified by his odd mannerisms, almost theatrical movements and poses, and camera angles that deify him; when he is at his most desperate or at his most uncertain, he gains a new instability that renders him ever more threatening, a man who is ready to succumb to any lows for his goals. And Mitchum plays all of it down to perfection, giving incredibly more depth to an already complex character, and rendering him one of the deadliest villains ever put to screen.

The biggest thing the film was criticized for upon its release is its religious themes and the idea of taking a preacher, a man of God, and demonizing him, but that is what makes The Night of the Hunter so interesting. It takes religion, and the idea of good and evil, the first being widely attributed to religion itself, and strips it to the ground: beyond the story of a murderous preacher haunting two children, there is a bare depiction of religious hypocrisy; the two poles, that is good and evil, are clearly visible throughout the entire film, to both the characters and the audience, the disturbing thing is watching the village people constantly reshape their beliefs and be willingly blinded by Harry Powell for the simple fact that he is a preacher. He, on the other hand, is also a great example of the perils of extreme religious belief, and the self-righteousness that comes with one feeling he is “doing God’s work.”

After every viewing of The Night of the Hunter, I keep repeating the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, which is what Harry Powell sings to make his presence known, for days on end, because that is just one of the many ways the film haunts me. Charles Laughton, in his only directorial effort, crafted an elaborate blend between horror and noir, and Robert Mitchum came in and gave one of the greatest performances of all time, and brought life to a walking monster, a preacher with a knife, and a frightening force.  

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