It would be difficult to think of another film that portrays the dichotomy of good and evil in such a sublime manner as Charles Laughton’s 1955 offering (I would even go so far as to say “masterpiece”), Night of the Hunter. I had seen the title listed in a handful of definitive film lists, so I checked it out from the library the other day to see what the fuss was all about.
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a would-be revival preacher who is arrested at a burlesque show. While in jail, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stole $10,000 in a fatal robbery and is sentenced to die by hanging. Peter tells Harry about the money, but refuses to divulge its secret location. Nevertheless, armed with the information of the money’s mere existence, Harry tracks down Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Harry ingratiates himself into the good graces of the town’s elders, and convinces the gullible Willa to marry him. Willa blinds herself to the increasingly strange behavior of Harry, as he alternates between syrupy sweetness and wrenching evil in his efforts to learn of the money’s whereabouts. The children, John, and Pearl, are the only ones who know that the stolen $10,000 is hidden in the doll that Pearl carries around with her (“the last place that anyone would think to look”).
Harry’s obsession turns deadly when he slashes Willa’s throat in a fit of rage. He keeps his wits about him, however, when he ties her to the inside of a Model-T and drives it into the river, sinking her to the bottom of the lake. He shuffles into town the next day, sobbing about the betrayal he’s experienced: Willa, he says, ran off with another man. It is up to him now to mind her two motherless children. Willa’s death has thrown John and Pearl into the harrowing hands of Harry, and nothing stands in the way of his killing them to get to the true whereabouts of the money. In one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever recorded on film, Harry hunts the hiding children throughout the house. “Chiiillldrennn…” he calls, until finally realizing that they are cowering in the basement.
John and Pearl make their escape after several minutes of nail biting on my part. John finds a hidden rowboat amongst the trees on the shore of the lake, and takes off with Pearl. Ragged and hungry, they finally decide to spend the night on land, but have to flee when John spots the shadow of Harry roaming the countryside in his relentless search for them (and singing in his lingering baritone all the while). The children make it to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a mother earth figure who already cares for several other orphaned children. Rachel is no fool, and realizes what a devil Harry is when he finally learns of John and Pearl’s whereabouts at her farm. The ensuing stand-off between Rachel and Harry is somewhat like an apocalyptic struggle, pitting the earth mother against the encroaching forces of evil.
The most striking aspect of this film is the photography, which is some of the most stunning that I have ever seen. The way each scene is lit is very reminiscent of German Expressionism, with the exaggeration of shadows and distortions of reality. Laughton is careful to clearly show the forces of good and evil, locked in their eternal struggle through the characters of the film. Needless to say, the performances across the board are superb, and it was a relief to actually appreciate Shelley Winters on screen (I am not much of a fan of hers). The movie comes together as an eerie, dreamlike fantasy that at turns feels both coldly real and intangibly fleeting. Oddly enough, the film was not received well at all when it was released, which prompted Laughton to retire from directing. That was really a shame, as one can easily imagine what other masterworks could have come from Laughton as a director.