Director: Charles Laughton
(May contain spoilers to 62 year old film that you really should have seen by now)
“Like my good hand
tattooed E.V.I.L. across it’s brother’s fist
That filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist.”
Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell – the convict psychopath posing as a preacher could have stepped right out of a Nick Cave song if this film was released today. Instead its cinematography and dark themes probably inspired young Nick for a good album or five of songs.
Film history is littered with movies that somehow fall through the cracks with critics and audiences only to gain respect later on (Shawshank) while lesser films are blockbusters and realised to be utter garbage (Titanic). The critical and commercial failure of The Night Of The Hunter is as puzzling as it’s influence on future film-makers is obvious.
A man, Robert Graves, robs a bank, killing two & hides the money at his home with his children as the only witnesses to its location just before the cops haul him away. Whilst awaiting execution he shares a cell with widow murderer disguised as preacher, Harry, who wants that 10,000 dollars and visits his grieving family posing as the prison chaplain. Worming his way into the local community and the widow’s affections (Shelley Winters as Willa) he is viewed with suspicion by young Harry and Pearl, keepers of the secret loot.
Mitchum was Hollywood’s “bad boy” after his recent real life incarceration for dope possession and first time director but international film star, Charles Laughton took a bit of a risk on hiring him. However you can’t imagine more perfect casting – Mitchum’s sly honeyed tones coming from that fizzog capable of such innocence and fury at a moment’s notice. It clearly would later gain him a multitude of roles including the similar memorably evil Max Cady in ‘Cape Fear’.
Laughton gets fine performances from the two juveniles, 10 year old Billy Chapin & 5 year old Sally Jane Bruce who hold the narrative together for much of the film especially a slow drift down the river fleeing the murderous Mitchum. Lillian Gish is superb as the feisty Mrs Cooper who is more than a match for both the wary runaways and their pursuer.
Perhaps the film’s magic thou is in its beautifully composed images. Light and shadows add menace and foreboding doom. A beautifully horrific underwater tableau of one of Powell’s victims still impresses in these days of CGI and the crowd scenes perfectly capture mob rule and hysteria. There is a little light relief in those sections and Willa’s bickering employers, The Spoons but overall this is a tale of evil trying its best to wrestle good into the dirt.
Drawing from the stark realism of German films of the 20s, Stanley Cortez’s work is the star attraction. One iconic image of a farmstead at night the children use as a hiding place is quickly followed by another of the silhouette of Mitchum on a horse against the horizon, his softly crooned spirituals echoing across the fields. “Doesn’t he ever sleep?” John mutters, observing an early example of the ever approaching storm as personified later by Yul Bryner in ‘Westworld’ and Annie / Robert Patrick in the Terminator films.
Sex, murder, greed and religion – this is a film that had everything that an audience of any era could want alongside its technical and acting marvels so it’s failure is just baffling. Perhaps it was felt too potent a mix at that time, that audiences might side with the charismatic criminal and forgive his low down evil ways. Laughton was crushed by its failure and never directed again, Mitchum carried on to bigger thou rarely better things as did most of the rest of the cast. It’s reputation rescued it is now hailed as one of the greatest films ever made and no one who has seen it can forget that image of Mitchum, leaning on a gatepost with Good & Hate tattooed on his knuckles, ready to throw down some brimstone.
My recent viewing waz via the Arrow Films Blu Ray presentation of a new transfer that although lacking many extras of the US Criterion label release does have its jewel in a 2 1/2 hour ‘making of’ documentary. Featuring extensive behind the scenes footage and alternate takes it demonstrates Laughton’s working methods. Whether getting a ten year old to act shocked by slapping him in the stomach before a take would be acceptable today is debateable but it’s fascinating if slightly exhausting stuff.
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