FLASHBACK FLICKS: The Night of the Hunter
There are films that when released are misunderstood to the viewing audience and in some cases are so unappealing to the public that they are put in the cinematic vault before they are given the chance to expand our minds so that we may view the artistic integrity of the subject. When English actor Charles Laughton, in his directorial debut released the religiously fueled thriller The Night of the Hunter in 1955, audiences and critics put down the film for it’s “depressing” subject matter and sinister tone. Deeply hurt by the negative reception, the film would be Laughton’s first and last attempt to direct a major motion picture.
Fast forward sixty-three years later, The Night of the Hunter is now considered to be a masterpiece. It is applauded for its acting, cinematography, musical score, and impeccable direction by Laughton.
The Night of the Hunter is just one of many examples of films released during the 20th century that are now considered to be achievements in filmmaking. But when I think of a film that was to be far ahead of it’s time, The Night of the Hunter stands alone. In watching it in today’s world, over half a century later, it’s easy to understand why this film was misinterpreted as unusual when it was initially released. The film is based on true events of a criminal who was hung in 1932 for his crimes. The Night of the Hunter’s plot revolves around controversial subjects such as murder, religious obsession, and abuse.
The general plot of the film focuses on two children, a brother and sister named John and Pearl who hide $10,000 that their father Ben has stolen from a bank robbery. Once their father is arrested, he shares a cell with a self-labeled Reverend named Harry Powell who has been arrested for possession of a stolen car. Powell is actually a con man who travels from town to town marrying widows, murdering them, then taking their money. After learning about the missing $10,000 and Ben is hung for his crimes, Harry is eventually released from jail and sets out to find the children’s mother Willa.
Harry arrives in town, charming everyone with his religious sermons. He meets Willa and her two children. Willa is unaware that her children have hidden the $10,000 in Pearl’s rag doll but Harry, based on the information he received from Ben before his execution, is certain that the children know where the money is and is determined to get the truth from them. The course of the film revolves around this plotline and it makes for a very suspenseful 90 minutes.
Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell.
Robert Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, one of the most villainous characters in cinema. He carries with him a pocket knife always but keeps it hidden. He validates his killings through speaking to the Lord and clarifying that the bible is full of killings. He believes he is doing the Lord’s work by ridding the world of women who do not respect their bodies, who flaunt their sexuality. He is triggered by women sexually but also in disgust. Tattooed on the fingers of his left hand are the letters H-A-T-E. Tattooed on the fingers of his right hand are the letters L-O-V-E. When he arrives in town to pursue his new widow and her children, he explains the story of right hand/left hand, the story of good and evil.
"It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!"
-Reverend Harry Powell
Mitchum is unsettling as Harry Powell. His religious sermons convince the entire town he is a man of the cloth when really, he is evil incarnate. I think the religious tones in this film is what put off audiences initially but watching The Night of the Hunter today, it makes perfect sense as to why Harry Powell is so magnanimous in his adoration from others. There are those who become so consumed by religion, who let their faith guide them through life and what The Night of the Hunter does is show how there are those who use their religion and beliefs to brainwash people, to make them believe there is no other way to think, no other power to believe. Harry accomplishes this task when Willa accepts his hand in marriage as she is convinced he will cleanse her of all the sin she has encountered. The only one who does not seem to fall for Powell’s “moving” passages is John, who despite being only a child, can see the devious intentions behind Harry Powell’s actions.
Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Harry Powell is so nightmarish in it’s fluidity. The image of Powell’s shadow on the wall as he stands outside in the dark while John and Pearl try to sleep is terrifying.
His stance has he holds up his hand to the skylight, displaying the letters H-A-T-E, receiving the validation from the Lord before he murders Willa is a symbol of his religious brutality. I’ve always felt that religion, particularly when it is used in cinema can be far scarier and unsettling than a killer. Robert Mitchum’s compelling performance in this film is so iconic and it is such a shame that he never received the accolades he truly deserved for this role as I think this is one of the greatest performances ever on film.
Along with Robert Mitchum’s astonishing and frightful performance as Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter has a remarkable cast. Shelley Winters plays Willa Harper, the mother of John and Pearl. Her character is weak, vulnerable, and easily convinced by Powell’s religious demeanor. Shelley Winters has remained one of my favorite actresses and this is a completely different role that she takes on. I love how she is portrayed as a woman who is so consumed in her newly founded faith that she is so obtuse to the evil intentions of her husband although these actions are happening right in front of her.
Shelley Winters as Willa Harper.
Another brilliant performance in this film comes from Lillian Gish who plays Rachel Cooper, an old woman who takes in John and Pearl when she finds them sleeping in a canoe after days of floating down river to escape Reverend Powell. Lillian Gish was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era but once “talkies” emerged, her film roles became less and less. But there is no other way to put this, Lillian Gish was perfect in this role! As Rachel, she plays a tough woman who takes in parentless children and teaches them the ways of life through stories from the bible. When Reverend Powell locates John and Pearl and thinks he has convinced Rachel that he is their father and that their mother ran off on them, Rachel sees right through it, taking out a shotgun and threatening to kill him if ever tries to take John and Pearl away.
In my opinion, Lillian Gish deserved an Academy Award for her performance.
There is a brilliantly shot scene (one of many) in which Rachel is sitting inside the house. It’s dark so all we see is the silhouette of her profile rocking in her chair, holding her shotgun. A light is shining down on the window and we see Reverend Powell sitting outside watching her as he sings “Leaning…leaning…leaning on the everlasting arms.” Rachel begins to sing along with him. Suddenly, one of the children she has taken in, Ruby, runs in the room holding a candle exposing Rachel to the Reverend. Rachel quickly blows out the candle and when she looks out the window, Harry Powell is gone.
The iconic shot.
The Night of the Hunter is full of symbolism, particularly about the contrast between good and evil. It is one of the best films to display this symbolism without the use of words. The use of light and cinematography throughout the film is an achievement in art direction. The Night of the Hunter is so powerful in it’s imagery that even if you have the mindset that audiences and critics had when it was released in 1955, you will still find yourself shaken to your core from the metaphorical intensity that is displayed in the film.
While The Night of the Hunter was completely overlooked in terms of accolades (the film or anyone involved did not receive a single nomination in any awards bracket), perhaps the biggest injustice to come from the time it took for audiences to appreciate the film’s artistic achievement was that director Charles Laughton did not live to see it. He was devastated by the film’s negative reception and never directed another movie because of it. But despite the fact that Laughton was not around to see just how much of an impact The Night of the Hunter has had on cinema, that does not change the fact that he had a major part in directing a truly groundbreaking film.
The Night of the Hunter had a lot to say in 1955 and it has even more to say in 2018. If you are someone who is studying to be a director or art director or are a film historian, sit down and watch The Night of the Hunter. This is a landmark film of the 20th century that through symbolism and imagery has established itself as a cinematic masterpiece.
For more Flashback Flicks, please subscribe to blog Some Like It Hollywood and be sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.