The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Set in an indeterminate date (but which appears to be during the Great Depression), The Night of the Hunter tells the story of a devilish, rouge preacher named Harry Powell (played by Out of the Past star Robert Mitchum) who spends his time stalking his way across America finding, courting and eventually murdering rich widows. All ostensibly in the name of the Lord, of course… After he spends 30 days inside for larceny, he finds himself sharing a cell with a man sentenced to death for bank robbery. Prior to his arrest, he hid the $10,000 he stole and left his two young children the only people knowing where its location, bound by a sworn oath to keep the money safe. Upon his release, Powell makes his way to his cell-mate’s widow and works his way into the family and community under the guise of a loving village preacher. What follows is a dark and ruthless regime of religious indoctrination, torture and manipulation to force the children into revealing to him the whereabouts of the money. Manipulation leads to murder, and a desperate situation for the children trying to flee from a town drowning in religious hypocrisy.
Story-wise, it’s a dark and unpleasant tale for the full 89-minute running time (save for a mildly redemptive ending). There is little sense of hope or the chance for any happy ending for the two children involved – between their father being hung, being taunted at school for their father’s death, being starved by Powell, the death of their mother, the refusal of a town to recognise their plight…it’s a tough ride, and one which seems especially bold given the sensitivity of topics like childhood youth back in 1955. But then the plot (taken from a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb – a copy of which is making its way towards me in the post as I write this) is based on real life murderer Harry Powers, a serial killer operating in the early 1930s who lured victims in with ‘lonely heart’ ads – and one who did in fact murder a number of children, as well as wealthy widows (read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Powers).
Given the darkness of the plot and the real-life events that it draws from, there was plenty for Mitchum to get his teeth into in playing the role, and he suitably gives a career-defining performance as the sinister Powell, reaching a brilliant balance in playing the character as a charming, well-intending man of God, as well as a ruthless killer. He’s all but playing two separate roles at times, such is the see-saw nature of the character. Few actors could pull it off with such finesse. It’s perhaps his darkest role – for those who have seen the original Cape Fear from 1962, Mitchum’s role as Powell here seems very much like an early version of the Max Cady character he would go on to play in that later film (only with the added religious-nut job aspect which Robert DeNiro added to the Cady character for the 1991 Cape Fear remake). He is a dark, sinister man fully confident in his own abilities and pursues his prey like a relentless force of nature. But despite that, you can’t help but wait for the next time he shows up on screen – such is the brilliance and underlying power of the character and Mitchum’s performance.
The other surprising stars of the film are the two child actors – Billy Chapin (aged around 11 when the film came out) and Sally Jane Bruce (aged around 6-7) playing John and Pearl Harper respectively. Chapin had much success as a child actor, although appears to have gone off-route after the 1950s, and Bruce had no other known roles after this film. But together here, they act as the perfect foil to Mitchum and display a rare level of talent (Chapin particularly stands out in a scene where, as he watches Powell being arrested by the police, has flashbacks to his own father’s arrest and begins to emotionally break down, throwing the money – the object of Powell’s desire – into his face as he is being cuffed).
In terms of the supporting cast, Shelley Winters gives a strong performance as the widow caught under Powell’s spell – being gradually worn down by his supposed faith and guidance. Lillian Gish (known for starring in the controversial Birth of a Nation) plays the role of surrogate mother who is forced into confronting Powell and exposing his masquerade for all that it is – she very much looks and sounds the part of a doting, God-fearing grandmother who would take in whoever she found at her doorstep. The rest of the cast fill out lighter, gentler roles, often adding light comic relief in a film which is pretty relentlessly dark and brooding.
Much has been said about the film’s particular use of camera angles and lighting styles which have roots in German expressionism – certainly Charles Laughton created a film with memorable shots and sequences. Powell’s repeated singing of a bastardised hymn acts as a sort of devilish calling-card, made all the more powerful in the scene between Mitchum and Gish singing the song to each other in the still of the night as Gish watches over the sleeping children. Close ups of Powell’s flick knife shooting out of its case, along with shots such as the two children hiding in their cellar and their subsequent night spend floating down a river keep the air of tension and suspense up throughout the move. Music is under-played (aside from a few dramatic trumpet noises signalling Powell’s arrival towards the start of the film) in favour of keeping a quiet, tense setting led solely by the intricate dialogue between the characters.
Sadly, the film under-performed upon its original release, the fallout of which meant that Charles Laughton never directed another picture, but its reputation has grown a lot over the years and is now recognised as a key film in the later end of the noir era. It has a darkness and eerie charm all of its own – the themes of religious dogma is as much a problem now as it ever was, and so the continues to resonate with us. It’s a dark and powerful movie, led by a flawless performance from Mitchum and driven by two talented child actors – it’s heavy watching, but it’s impressive watching all the same.