Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter
Charles Laughton’s only outing as a director The Night of the Hunter (1955) has been recently released on DVD by the good folks at The Criterion Collection. I first saw it on Turner Classic Movies several years ago. Ever since my initial viewing, it’s been one of my most favorite works of classic cinema. What Laughton did was create one of the most stylized, expressionistic pieces of noir cinema ever produced. When the film was first released it didn’t do well at the box office. That’s interesting because this is often a common occurrence with movies that go on to become regarded as masterpieces.
Robert Mitchum plays psychopathic evangelical preacher Harry Powell who is released from prison and searching for a stolen cache of money which was hidden by his old cell mate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) before his incarceration. Powell’s main problem is that he doesn’t know exactly where the cash is, only that its somewhere at Harper’s home amongst wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and his young children, daughter Pearl and son John. We learn that both Pearl and John know about the loot, but Willa doesn’t. Powell arrives in the small West Virginia town where Harper is from and charms his way into the unassuming townsfolk and Harper families’ lives. He soon marries the lonely, beautiful Willa, then suddenly begins to terrorize them all, both ignoring Willa’s longings for love and sadistically needling the children into telling where the money’s hidden. The striking use of noir visual motifs, along with the eerie, dreamlike score by Walter Schumann mixed with Mitchum’s rather over the top yet chilling performance are completely captivating.
To me, the film is like a mixture of a child’s dream and an adult’s nightmare. The Night of the Hunter is a prime example of what cinema can be at its most potent. It’s a movie that evokes so many emotions, from laughter to horror to sorrow to joy. All the pieces of the film come together wonderfully. It features a great cast and Director Charles Laughton utilizes all kinds of incredible visual techniques to weave a tale that has gone on to be a timeless classic about the nature of good and evil. It also makes you wonder what kind of career Charles Laughton would’ve had if he had made more films!