(1955) Directed by Charles Laughton; Written by James Agee; Based on the novel by Davis Grubb; Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish and Billy Chapin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“It’s a hard world for little things” – Rachel Cooper
Unless our faith in human nature has been jaded beyond repair, we want to think the best of people. Most of us have been brought up to believe that people are basically good, even if their actions are not. The Night of the Hunter chooses to take a more cynical perspective – that some individuals will always see this optimistic viewpoint as a weakness to exploit. This was probably a bitter pill for audiences and critics to swallow in 1955, when the film was dismissed as a failure. Charles Laughton’s first and only feature directorial effort wasn’t recognized as a classic until decades later. It’s been alternately described as a horror film or gothic drama, but neither of these tags really seem particularly suitable. Perhaps Laughton’s self-described “nightmarish mother goose story” is best regarded as a social horror film, a cautionary fable about those who trust unconditionally and those who choose to violate that trust.
Robert Mitchum stars in one of his greatest roles, as well as one of cinema’s most fascinating portrayals of evil, as the faux preacher Harry Powell. There’s something fundamentally primal about his performance, which he imbues with animalistic, predatory qualities. We get a sense of his true nature when his plans are thwarted, and he responds with guttural howls and yips. His smooth talking exterior hides the monster that lurks just beneath the surface, embodied by the words “love” and “hate,” which are tattooed on his knuckles. In an early scene he provides an impromptu sermon on this emotional duality (a scene that would be mirrored many years later in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Powell moves from town to town, finding young widows with money to exploit. He’s the consummate sociopath, possessing the ability to manipulate the emotions of others, yet incapable of experiencing empathy. He ensnares people with his sweet talk and pious demeanor, which masks a soulless, calculating machine.
In a transparent effort to emulate D.W. Giffith’s style, Laughton went so far as to hire Griffith’s leading lady Lillian Gish. Gish portrays the matronly Rachel Cooper, serving as counterpoint to Powell’s character. She’s as genuine and altruistic as he’s deceitful and selfish. She immediately sees through Powell and his schemes, oblivious to his bullying tactics. Rachel has witnessed the ills of the world, and is determined to shelter her small part of it from her group of orphaned children.
Shelley Winters plays the recently widowed Willa Harper. She’s almost instantly smitten by Powell’s charismatic ploy for her affections, and fails to see his motivating impulses. Unfortunately, her naïveté will prove to be her undoing, as she persists in the notion that this mysterious interloper only has honorable intentions. She remains blissfully unaware that her children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are nothing more than pawns in Powell’s shameless manipulations. By the time it dawns on Willa that her new husband is not the man she took him to be, it’s too late. The trap has been set, and her fate is sealed.
Chapin turns in a powerful performance as John Harper, one of the few individuals who can see Powell for who he is from the beginning. He’s introduced at the beginning of the film, making a promise to his bank robber father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), before he’s dragged away by the police. Ben entrusts John with hiding $10,000* (which is promptly hidden in Pearl’s doll), fully aware of the burden that he’s placing on his young son. It’s clear that the good-intentioned but obtuse Willa wouldn’t be capable of keeping the stolen cash a secret for long. When Powell enters the scene, sniffing around for the money, it’s up to John to protect his family’s interests. He refuses to accept Powell as his new father, and opposes him in a battle of wills. But there’s only so much that John can do, as he stands powerless against Powell’s efforts to take everything away that he values.
* Fun fact: At the time, real U.S. currency could not be filmed. As a result, the money hidden in the doll was actually Mexican pesos.
One of the most stunning aspects of The Night of the Hunter, is Stanley Cortez’ gorgeous cinematography. Cortez had a (sometimes infamous) reputation for taking an inordinate amount of time to set up his shots, and it shows. Virtually any still taken from the film is an example of the care that went into his composition, which masterfully employed light and shadow to convey small town menace. One of the most striking examples occurs when Powell first arrives in front of the Harper house. His silhouette looms over Billy, as a harbinger of doom for the Harper family. In a later scene, we are treated to a ghastly, but oddly serene image of a corpse at the bottom of a lake, with her hair billowing in the currents. John and Pearl’s subsequent escape from Powell in a rowboat takes on a dreamlike quality as they float down a serene river. Animals look on dispassionately as an indifferent moon and stars (courtesy of effects masters Louis De Witt and Jack Rabin) preside over their exodus.
It’s difficult to imagine that there was a time, not so long ago, when The Night of the Hunter wasn’t appreciated as a masterpiece. Unlike some classics, it somehow seems more accessible to modern audiences, with its themes about unrelenting evil and cynicism about human nature. By the time the townspeople realize that they’ve been taken for a ride by Powell, it’s too late to regain the innocence that they’ve lost. Their abrupt turn against him only seems capricious, considering that they unquestioningly accepted him in the beginning. These themes went largely unnoticed during the film’s initial release. Laughton was devastated when The Night of the Hunter was poorly received, and never directed again. His tentatively scheduled second film, The Naked and the Dead, was eventually directed by Raoul Walsh at another studio. It’s sad to ponder what might have been, but at least we have this one tantalizing example of what was.