The Night of the Hunter is nearly as demented as its lead villain, and I mean that as a compliment. This is one weird, troubling movie, all the more so for being released in 1955. And as the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, its very existence is somewhat haunting. If it weren’t for the fact that this is available on video, you’d wonder if the movie ever really happened.
Based on a Davis Grubb novel and a James Agee script, The Night of the Hunter is the Bible-soaked, Depression-era tale of a “false prophet” named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Tall and handsome, with a deep voice that easily lends itself to familiar hymns, Powell is, nonetheless, a serial killer who believes his crimes are ordained by God. He leaves a trail of dead women at the movie’s start, moving on to a recent widow (Shelley Winters) and her two children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Powell has learned that the man of the house (Peter Graves) stashed $10,000 somewhere before he died, and Powell plans to find it by any means necessary.
Mitchum is a dreamily terrifying presence, partly because Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez film him in menacing silhouette a good quarter of the time. (The sudden appearance of his shadow on the children’s bedroom wall is one of the movie’s iconic images.) Even when he’s charming strangers – often with a speech about the words “love” and “hate” that he has tattooed on his fingers – there’s a insinuating undercurrent to his TV preacher smarm.
If there is a predominant aesthetic, it’s a combination of surrealism and German expressionism.
In terms of form, The Night of the Hunter is a bit scattershot, as if Naughton knew he wasn’t going to make another film and decided to throw every technique he could think of into this one. The movie opens with the bizarre, David Lynchian image of disembodied heads floating against the backdrop of a starry night sky. When then get an array of documentary-like aerial shots of the river town where John and Pearl live, as well as some naturalistic location exteriors. And punctuated throughout are little camera tricks, as when Powell’s memory of a nightclub dancer seems to be viewed through a keyhole, or when Powell marches toward the front door of the children’s home and an iris shot reveals them watching from the cellar window.
Still, if there is a predominant aesthetic to The Night of the Hunter, it’s a combination of surrealism and German expressionism. The interior scenes, with their sharply angled walls and dramatic shadows, recall nothing less than Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while an extended sequence of the children escaping by boat down a river makes use of Wizard of Oz-style matte backgrounds and stagey sets, lending a heightened, impressionistic quality. And then there is the movie’s piece de resistance, a ghostly shot of the corpse of one of Powell’s victims tied to a car at the bottom of the river. As her hair dances in the current, mimicking the nearby seaweed, a fisherman’s hook dangles from above, teasingly threatening to catch on the body. Only a visionary talent would take care to include something like this in a film that didn’t – in terms of plot – really need it.
The Night of the Hunter also includes an unlikely third act centered on Lillian Gish. Naughton called on the silent film legend to play Rachel Cooper, a single, older woman who cares for a handful of cast-off children, including John and Pearl when their boat comes to a rest on her shore. (“I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds,” she says.) A woman of faith, she’s a counter to Powell’s distorted religiosity – something eerily evoked when she sits on her porch with a shotgun as he lurks in the shadows and they perform an antagonistic duet of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” To further use the movie’s own metaphors, Rachel is love to Powell’s hate. And in Gish and Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter has two powerhouse performers who are more than up to embodying that sort of metaphysical showdown.