It is always a shame to hear that a great film wasn’t appreciated by its contemporary audience, but it unfortunately happens far more often than might be initially expected. “The Night of the Hunter” is a gem — a gem that has been painstakingly crafted into the best of its kind — a gem where how it came to be is just as important as what it sets out to convey — a gem that manipulates light into a thing of beauty in a way that seems almost impossible and sometimes uncanny. Light and dark swathe the sets created in Charles Laughton’s magnum opus which just so happened to be his only film of his career. If he decided not to direct again because of the attacks from the critics and audiences of the time then its hard not to feel like the brightest candle had been snuffed out just as it got burning.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a corrupt preacher with the words “love” tattooed onto his right hand and “hate” tattooed onto the other. John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) Harper have been left a sum of $10,000 dollars that their Father (Peter Graves) had stolen. He is arrested and sentenced to death, but has the misfortune of meeting an inquisitive Harry Powell, who is eager to use his man of God persona to find out exactly where the money is. John and Pearl are the only two that know, Ben didn’t even tell his now widowed wife (Shelley Winters). Good thing too, because now that Powell has been released from incarceration — he will infiltrate the neighbourhood and find himself marrying the poor widow and place the “Chilll…dren” in his deadly sights.
Robert Mitchum brings everything needed and more to the character of Powell. I have never seen a Mitchum film and I find myself regretting this now, the way he handles the character makes him into a deceptively charming yet inescapably evil man. Early on you may find yourself being fooled and lulled into a false sense of security just as he wishes to do with the children and townsfolk. Powell always feels like a man with a power that is being left dormant inside him that could be disturbed at any moment if you do not take care. Yet it is easy to enjoy listening to him and to see him interact with the kids is diabolical in its supposed innocence. The tattooed hands that serve as props to his biblical story are relentlessly memorable. The influence of the knuckles is evident as it is unlikely to be a concept that people aren’t familiar with. One letter for each knuckle to spell out a word, it sounds simple but it gives Powell an aura of enforced “justice”. He has the power to exact “love” and “hate” as he sees fit, “Judge not lest ye be judged” — a message that Powell believes wholly irrelevant.
All the characters are interesting and developed sufficiently but that is only part of it. The real character is the aesthetic of the film, it disregards realism for a more expressionist piece and it is spectacular. The second half in particular as the children flee from Powell. who has threatened to slice John’s throat, down Ohio river is unprecedented in its eerie beauty. One particularly sublime shot is just of the boat traversing across the stream as the water flows and glistens, the background is dark and sweeping and the stars shine in the sky. It is quiet and not much really happens, but it would be a glaring sign of ignorance to even suggest that something has to. The scene gives a sense of two children on their own in a huge world that will throw many horrible things a them as they grow up. But as children “They abide… and they endure”.
Powell is one of the best villains ever placed in front of a camera. He carries such presence and is so believable that he is even able to convince a woman that his murder of her is a result of her sin. The scene in question is composed so perfectly, as the camera takes a wide shot of the room and Laughton manipulates the light so uncannily as to completely change the literal shape and meaning of the room. Powell stands over the widow who is laying and in acceptance of her fate in a way that is reminiscent of a deceased person on display at a wake. The shadows just make the scene take on a whole life of it’s own and really exaggerates the size of Powell as he displays his form over the woman.
Exaggeration is part of what contributes to the expressionist premise of “The Night of the Hunter”. Buildings are large and often slanted in a haunted house like manner. Camera shots are used to create a variation in size by simply bringing objects further into the foreground and other further out. As Powell rides his horse singing hymns far off in the distance as the children watch from their hiding place, (an effect that was achieved using illusions of perspective, it is actually a dwarf riding a pony) we get the awful feeling that he is just out of reach and is projecting his influence for miles around. At this point he is a shadow — a wraith — haunting the children and filling the audience with suspense and a pervading sense of dread that also stalks the watcher.
The film plays with our perspective to create new meaning out of potentially unremarkable scenes. As the children hide from Powell in the basement and he calls down they stairs for them: “I can hear you whispering, Chilll….dren”. His shadow is cast and elongated to the extent that it feels as though it alone could reach out and linger over you. It’s a clear result of two titanic talents in the form of Mitchum and Laughton coming together to just take what could have been a simple scene to establish the idea of the kids finding themselves in the position where they feel they need to hide from Powell, to one of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in film history,
Many haven’t even heard of “The Night of the Hunter” and that’s one of the great tragedy’s in cinema history as far as I’m concerned. “Life’s hard for little things” says Rachel cooper (Lillian Gash) and perhaps this can be applied to the neglect “The Night of the Hunter” has had to experience. A much smaller movie than much of what Robert Mitchum was creating, but greater than them all by comparison. A comparison that took overtly long to be made? Yes. Suffice it to say that despite the rocky past it remains a treat and one of the best films you’ll ever watch. There is so much to probe and discover within it and it is infallible in it’s fantastical beauty. After a sequence of awful films, “The Night of the Hunter” has refreshed me like a sip from the mythical and applicable fountain of youth.
Hard to find, easy to cherish.