B&W Cinema Series: “The Night of the Hunter” by Nate Blake

The Night of the Hunter is a film I’ve been meaning to revisit for well over a decade and I finally carved out some time to watch my new Criterion Collection Blu-ray yesterday morning. I had only seen this film once previously, back when I was 14, and only because my Dad rented it from Netflix (back when they sent DVDs through the mail) after seeing it included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains. Over the years I forgot many details of the film’s plot, but the words and evil deeds of Reverend and serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) re-emerge in my mind every fall as trees began shedding their leaves and Jack-O-Lanterns appeared on neighbors’ porches.

This film, the only one directed by Charles Laughton, was so poorly received by critics and audiences when it was released that Laughton decided to never helm another feature. Over time, it earned cult status and reappraisals from many critics. It is now regarded as a classic thriller featuring one of the best villains of all time. I have to agree on both counts. While the film certainly has its flaws, it’s a delightfully unsettling and surprisingly adult (for the era) look at childhood trauma and a critique of the overabundance of trust people are willing to place in anyone claiming to be a servant of God.

As with my other reviews in this series, this one will contain spoilers as I examine the plot, themes and technical aspects in detail.

The plot involves the aforementioned Reverend Powell, who travels along the Ohio River deceiving women before murdering them and stealing their money. He justifies these actions to himself by claiming he is doing the lord’s work, and his troubling worldview is in some aspects similar to that of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of A Doubt. Powell is arrested for driving a stolen car, and while in prison meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man awaiting execution for murdering two men and stealing ten thousand dollars. After Harper is executed and Powell is released from serving his sentence, the supposed reverend sets out win the affections of Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and find the ten thousand dollars. The only people who know where the money is hidden are the Harper children, John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).  The film builds to a disturbing cat and mouse game between Powell and the children.

The film’s greatest strength is the building tension during the first two thirds. Powell is easily able to get Willa to marry him, in no small part thanks to some societal pressure working against the widow and urging her to find another father for the children and to do it quickly. Then we see how this very sexist attitude traps Willa. She ends up in a marriage absent respect, sexual gratification and love; a relationship that will ultimately take her life. Laughton and Screenwriter James Agee choose to further critique the argument that children always need a two parent home (or a mother/father parenting arrangement) by having John and Pearl’s savior be woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who takes care of orphaned children without the presence of a man. I can imagine that such persistent critique of society and organized religion’s expectations for women contributed to the film’s commercial failure in 1953.

The threat Reverend Powell poses to John and Pearl intensifies as he become more impatient in his search for the money. Mitchum’s performance will stick with you long after the film ends, whether it’s in the way he screams out of frustration into the night after the children elude his capture, or the deceitful warmth he exudes as he rides across the countryside on horseback while crooning “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The terror is amplified by beautiful and haunting cinematography by Stanley Cortez, who expertly blends this tale of murder and deception in the American Heartland with German Expressionism. Particularly striking is the use of shadows. Reverend Powell’s presence of often introduced by the sound of him singing and the shadow of his figure, illuminated by a streetlight, growing larger on the wall of a bedroom or living room. It’s every bit as chilling as seeing a shark’s fin pierce the surface of the water in Jaws. There are also numerous breathtaking wide shots utilizing light and fog.

Despite the many thrills in The Night of the Hunter, there are a few elements that don’t work for me. The dialogue throughout is fairly unrealistic. That’s also in tune with German Expressionism, which tends to have very stylized dialogue. But here, the characters often sound as if they are thinking out loud. That works in regards to Reverend Powell, because this is after all a character who has talked himself into believing that killing women and stealing their money is a mission from God. It doesn’t work when other characters think out loud though, such as when a panicked Ben Harper is trying to decide where to hide the ten thousand dollars. He verbally and all to quickly runs through various options before settling on Pearl’s doll. It’s a clunky moment in a key scene.

The film’s climax is also just not as intense or unsettling as it should be. Once the Harper children arrive at Rachel Cooper’s place, it’s clear Powell has lost, and that’s long before Rachel fills him with a round from her shotgun. It’s anti-climactic, and the falling action, though it ties the theme together nicely, goes on a bit long.

Finally, despite the overall excellence in the cinematography, I had to chuckle at a scene where a fisherman peers over the side of his boat and sees Willa’s corpse sitting in the submerged automobile. I’ve seen some pretty clear bodies of water in my lifetime, but a river deep enough to submerge a car in is probably not going to be clear enough to see a wound, even it if is large, on a dead person’s neck.

Despite these flaws, The Night of the Hunter is a must-see thriller and will be on my annual Halloween watch list from now on. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments. I hope to be back with one or two more Halloween themed film reviews before the end of the month. In the meantime, go watch some black and white movies.

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