wed 12/08/2020

The Night of the Hunter | reviews, news & interviews

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum at his most chilling in Charles Laughton’s Fifties deliberation on evil

The Night of the Hunter is not recorded as having charmed critics when released in 1955, but its reappearance in cinemas means it can be seen for what it was: a dark, frightening and intense film which questions the nature of faith and what happens when evil comes to town.

Central to the impact is Robert Mitchum’s creepy portrayal of bogus preacher, con man and serial killer Harry Powell. Without Charles Laughton’s sure-footed and distinctive direction framing this unforgettable performance, the film would not be as impactful as it is. Although almost 60 years old, The Night of the Hunter needs to be seen. A word of warning – it’s impossible not to feel queasy upon leaving the cinema.

Night of the HunterIn essence, The Night of the Hunter is a fact-based film telling the story of Powell, a real person hung in 1932 after murdering a pair of widows and two children. It was based on a novelisation of the case. Laughton’s film set the template for the 1967 film In Cold Blood, based on Truman Capote’s book on a real case. In turn, it reverberates through the darker work of the Coen Brothers. In their No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) directly drew on the nature of Mitchum’s monstrous, money sniffing Powell.

But The Night of the Hunter is recognisably Fifties, and snugly fits the film noir canon. It also draws heavily from German expressionist cinema. The depiction of Powell’s arrival at the house of his intended prey emulates that of Max Schrek’s Count Orlok in FW Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. The framing of Powell and his new wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) interacting in their bedroom is a classic expressionist warping of the setting to make it look as though they are in church (pictured above right). It further draws from cinema's past by casting (mostly) silent-era star Lillian Gish.

Night of the HunterThe director was actor Charles Laughton. English, like Alfred Hitchcock, he brought a literate, allusion-filled sensibility to the film. Despite having earlier formed his own production company, it became his only directorial credit proper (Mitchum subsequently claimed some scenes were filmed under his direction). Based on The Night of the Hunter, Laughton could have rivalled Hitchcock as a master of suspense, terror and balancing the moral with the immoral.

Despite the impact of the film overall, some scenes instantly imprint themselves permanently: Winters underwater after meeting her inevitable fate (pictured above left); a commanding Gish reading from the bible at the film’s opening and later protecting her young charges (pictured below right); Mitchum, in shadow, riding his horse on the horizon (which suggests Dreyer); the frenzy of the lynch mob which gathers to get Mitchum's Powell; the repeated use of sung refrains to increase the mood of disquiet. Walter Schumann’s musical score is extraordinarily powerful too.

Night of the HunterEarly on, Powell answers the question of what faith he subscribes to with “The religion the almighty and me worked out betwixt us”. It’s as pivotal an answer for the Fifties as the response Marlon Brando’s Johnny offered in 1953’s The Wild One to “What are you rebelling against?”: “Whaddya got”.

Certainties were crumbling in post-War Fifties America – just as they were during the film’s Depression-era setting – as the Cold War began casting its chill and The Night of the Hunter is as much reflective of that and the cyclical nature of change as anything else. The world was changing, and no one knew how it was going to change. Choices about paths and attitudes to take were made by individuals when society as a whole was in flux and safety nets were being wilfully shredded by those in power, as it is with current-day Britain.

The Night of the Hunter is all of these things. More than these, it is a wonderful film re-released in a stunning, bold and contrast-heavy restored print. It resonates as strongly now as it has done over the years.

Overleaf: watch the original trailer for The Night of the Hunter

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch the original trailer for The Night of the Hunter


Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters