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The Night of the Hunter (1955)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Charles Laughton / USA/English/93mts
The Night of the Hunter is a truly compelling, haunting, and frightening classic masterpiece thriller-fantasy, and the only film ever directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton. This imaginatively-chilling, experimental, sophisticated work was idiosyncratic, film noirish, avant garde, dream-like expressionistic and strange, and it was both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release.
The disturbing, complex story was based on the popular, best-selling 1953 Depression-era novel of the same name by first-time writer Davis Grubb. The film is set in 1930s West Virginia, along the Ohio River. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is sentenced to hang for his part in a robbery in which two men were killed. Before he is caught, he hides the stolen money, trusting only his son John (Billy Chapin), the main character of the story, with the money's location. John has a much younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a serial killer and self-appointed preacher with the two words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across the knuckles of his right and left hands, shares a prison cell with Harper. He tries to get Harper to tell him the hiding place before his execution, but the only clue he gets is a Bible verse Harper mutters in his sleep: “And a little child shall lead them.”
Convinced that Harper told his children the secret, Powell woos and marries Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa does not know her new husband’s motive and believes her marriage will lead to her salvation. Powell asks the children about the money when they are alone, but they reveal nothing. John is suspicious of Powell and protective of his sister. One night Willa overhears her husband questioning the children and she realizes the truth. As she lies in bed that night in their attic bedroom, Powell leans over her and slits her throat.
Powell dumps Willa’s body in the river. He finally learns the money's location from Pearl by threatening John, but the children flee with the money down the river. They eventually find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a tough old woman who looks after stray children. Powell eventually tracks them down, but Rachel sees through his false virtue. After a climactic standoff, in which Rachel protects the children with a shotgun but sings hymns through the night with Powell, he is arrested by the police, tried, and, apparently, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Willa and for the crimes against the children. Towards the end of the film, Rachel declares that “children are man at his strongest. They abide.” Its message is clear. Evil is aboard in the world. Children must bear its brunt, but, as the Rachel says, “They abide, they endure.”
No one who has seen The Night of the Hunter can ever forget its images: the shadow of the preacher suddenly looming up into the window of the children’s bedroom; the body of a murdered woman sitting in a car submerged in a river, her long hair tangled with the river weeds; the silhouette of the preacher on the horizon of the nighttime sky, like some ghastly pop-up storybook image suddenly come to life. Best of all is the incredible lyrical sequence of the children’s escape from the preacher in a river raft; their progress observed by spiders, frogs, jackrabbits and other forest creatures seemingly out of some dark enchanted fairy tale.
But, for all its visual wonders, The Night of the Hunter is not a film of images alone. Laughton was first and foremost an actor’s director. From the sensitivity of the children’s performances to the pathos of Shelley Winters’ widow, to the broad humor of the character turns by Evelyn Varden and James Gleason, every acting moment counts.
The Night of the Hunter is perhaps the best Halloween movie; Pauline Kael called it “one of the most frightening movies ever made”. Reviewing the film on its first appearance in France, François Truffaut wrote: ‘it makes us fall in love again with an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers.’ Another way of putting this is that the creative moment remains present in the finished result, what Brecht had called ‘the active creative element, the making of art’.
The Night of the Hunter is an American gothic, Biblical tale of greed, innocence, seduction, sin and corruption. It surely remains as one of the greatest American films of all time.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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