The Night of the Hunter is actor Charles Laughton’s one and only dabble into the dark arts of directing. Maligned by both critics and audiences on its release for being too offbeat and fanciful, Laughton was discouraged from ever directing another film, despite having a script for Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead ready for him to direct. It was decades before The Night of the Hunter was re-evaluated by critics and audiences, and has since been widely considered one of the most darkly beautiful films ever made. Now, it is quite simply considered to be one of the greatest American movies of all time.
The Night of the Hunter is well ahead of its time, and yet quintessentially old-timey in its noir-like evocation of German Expressionism. There may be people who find this film jarring; the traits of German Expressionism that the film upholds, like peculiar camera angles, stylised dialogue and the use of sets over real settings, have been largely forgotten in mainstream contemporary cinema (expect, perhaps, for some of the earlier work of Tim Burton). But the film has no interest in creating a verisimilitudinous resemblance of reality, and these elements combine to create the nightmarish aura that characterises The Night of the Hunter.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a fraudulent preacher with the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles, learns that his former prison inmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has hidden $10 000 somewhere near his house. After his release and Harper’s hanging, the sinister Powell marries Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) in order to find and steal the money. After Powell murders Willa, her children John and Pearl, the only ones who know where the money is hidden, flee to a refuge for abandoned children run by Rachel Cooper (silent movie star Lillian Gish), but Powell is ever on the pursuit of them and the money.
The Night of the Hunter is, in my opinion, the most beautiful film of all time. If there is one film that I would love to see on the big screen, it would be The Night of the Hunter. Stanley Cortez’ black-and-white cinematography has an indescribable, intangible beauty, as every shot is framed with absolute delicacy and care. The Night of the Hunter is filled with what I like to call ‘pure cinematography’. No computer manipulation is required to forge the imagery; instead, the beauty comes from physical props and sets, and the positioning and movement of the camera, and the result is something far more striking and stylised than any CGI-laden film.
Certain images stay with you long after you see the film. I will never forget the shot of Rachel Cooper’s shadowy figure holding a shotgun as the camera slowly reveals Powell approaching her house. I will never forget the shot of John and Pearl, travelling down a river in a small boat, arriving at two barns along the riverbank, the reflections of the barns elucidated in the still water. I will never forget the shot of Willa’s dead body at the bottom of the river, her wispy hair matching the wispy seaweed – one of the few shots not lit in stark darkness, but remains as thematically dark as every image in the film. Chase sequences are coupled with slow and lyrical sequences like John and Pearl’s journey down the river; but The Night of the Hunter’s visual majesty gives the film utmost tonal coherency, uniting the scenes of exhilarating suspense with the scenes of eerie tranquillity.
The Night of the Hunter is not only one of the most beguilingly beautiful films I’ve ever seen, but is also one of the most subversive, and strangely disturbing, films I’ve ever seen as well. Despite its absence of subtlety and naturalism, I feel as though the film resonates more strongly with contemporary society than any other film of its era. Powell is a serial killer masquerading as a preacher, and in my opinion, this is a clear symbol of how religion can and has been used as a veil for unspeakable actions.
Powell lures suggestible people in with his false proselytising, and his pursuit of John and Pearl has disturbingly paedophilic connotations. He presents himself as an epitome of Christianity, but is inherently the opposite; for me, he now represents people who call themselves ‘Christian’ but are still opposed to marriage equality, euthanasia and gun law reformation because of their faith. However, The Night of the Hunter is not a purely anti-religious allegory; the stern, kindly and accepting character of Rachel Cooper spouts biblical references as much as Powell, but indeed upholds the Christian mantra of loving one another equally.
It is dualities like these that characterise The Night of the Hunter. Its themes of deception and facade run through every sequence. Throughout the film, the stuff of childhood dreams and thoughts, like lullabies and parental affection, are corrupted. Rather than being warm and comforting, the lullabies that Pearl sings when travelling down the river are shiveringly eerie, as the film constantly oscillates between being a dream and being a nightmare.
Perhaps the most shiveringly eerie element of the film is Robert Mitchum’s performance. And since I’m in the mood of dubbing things ‘the greatest ever’, I’m happy to dub his performance one of the greatest lead male performances of all time. Mitchum has to play many notes – alluring, dominant, sympathetic, irate, menacing – while simultaneously leaving the audience in no doubt about the completely evil nature of his character.
The Night of the Hunter has been slowly rising in the ranks of my favourite movies of all time for a while now, as it gets better and better with each viewing. It may even continue to rise. I don’t think you could call the film particularly subtle, but it is by no means heavy-handed either – the bombastic music and dialogue lacking in subtext belong in a film of this oneiric nature. So don’t be put off by its repudiation of naturalism and its many eccentricities. For anyone with even a mild interest in cinema, The Night of the Hunter is a must watch. It’s absolutely extraordinary.