Retro Review – ‘Night of the Hunter’
When acting legend Charles Laughton wanted to make the jump to the directors chair he knew from experience the importance of having a solid performer in front of the cameras. As such he turned to the incredibly talented Robert Mitchum as the sinister Reverend Harry Powell, whom Laughton described perfectly as “a diabolical shit”. The film he made was far from successful upon its release but has gone on to become an absolute classic, revered as a perfect showcase for the film noir style. That film is the 1955 picture, Night of the Hunter.
As stated before the success of this film hinged on the perfect casting of the lead role of Reverend Harry Powell. Robert Mitchum proved more than capable of the task of bringing this charmingly malicious character to life. With the word “HATE” tattooed across the fingers of his left hand and “LOVE” across his right while clad in black, Mitchum completely owns every scene he is in. On a personal level after watching his performance its sticks with me to the point that I get chills when hearing people sing hymnals in real life. His character is murderous psychopath with a penchant for the twisting the Bible, yet he is utterly charming the entire time.
While locked away in prison, serial killer and self-proclaimed minister Harry Powell learns that his cell mate stashed away the loot from a bank robbery and that only his children know where it is. His cellmate is executed while Powell is released and decidesd to pursue the money. In order to gain a foothold in the lives of the children, he seduces the robbers widow, played by Shelley Winters. He creates a public image of caring and God-fearing man causing the town to fall in love with him. But behind closed doors he tries to intimidate the young boy and his sister into telling him the location of the money he seeks. Winters’ character ends up murdered like so many other women who have crossed paths with Reverend Powell. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between the sinister minister and the children John and Pearl who have the money stashed in a doll.
The siblings take to the waterways to escape their pursuer,. Unfortunately no matter how far they get it is only a matter of time before the chilling image of a black-clad minister in a wide brim hat strolls into town singing a hymn. They eventually find refuge with a tough but fair older woman who takes the traumatized siblings in. This eventually leads to a tense standoff between between the woman and Reverend Powell who sits just outside the house singing his hymns and waiting for his chance to strike.
This may be the only film Charles Laughton ever helmed, but he showed he was more than capable for the task. He proved to have a unique visual style, drenching every scene in shadows to give it an eerie ominous feel. This use of lighting as well as his masterful camera work show a master of the craft who would have only gotten better. Despite being a dark thriller, the scenes Laughton creates all have a sense of beauty in them. For proof of this look no further than the haunting shot of Shelly Winter’s lifeless body floating to the bottom of the river, still strapped in a car and her hair entangled in seaweed. While the film may be beautiful from a visual standpoint, the story unfolds with a sense of tension filling every scene. This has led to Night of the Hunter being hailed as one of the scariest films ever made, despite it not being a true horror flick. The late Roger Ebert put it best when he described this film as a stylized nightmare.
Upon its release Night of the Hunter was sadly panned by critics, which drove Charles Laughton from directing ever again. But since then the film’s reputation has grown and is consistently ranked as one of the greatest thrillers and film noirs of all time. Night of the Hunter even earned a spot on the National Film Registry to be preserved for all time due to its importance. Thanks to Robert Mitchum’s performance Harry Powell has more than earned a spot among cinema’s greatest villains. This is a hauntingly beautiful film which is bound to fill viewers with dread as they watch it.