The Night of the Hunter

11 Feb

In 1955, renowned thespian Charles Laughton’s first foray into directing was met with a decidedly chilly reception from both critics and audience. Laughton poured his heart and soul into The Night of the Hunter and was understandably heartbroken at it’s non-success and never directed another film. However, many years after Laughton’s death in 1962, The Night of the Hunter was re-evaluated and is now deservedly considered one of the greatest American movies ever made.

Adapted by James Agee and Charles Laughton from a novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter features Robert Mitchum as the sinister Harry Powell, a serial killer/preacher who gets thrown in a jail cell with Ben Harper, a man who is soon to be hanged for theft and murder. When Powell is released, he enthusiastically makes his way to Ben’s widow, Willa, who he woos and subsequently marries, hoping to discover the location of the $10,000 that Ben stole. The only character immune to Powell’s charm offensive is Ben and Willa’s 10-year-old son John who is aware of the money’s location and diligently defends it.

The role of Harry Powell was originally offered to Lawrence Olivier who was too busy to take on the role but it is hard to see how he would have done any better than Mitchum who gives a performance that ranks among the most frightening ever filmed. Powell’s most apparent physical attribute is his tattooed knuckles – one hand featuring the word LOVE, the other hand featuring HATE –  a mere taster of the duality he displays throughout the film. The human form of the ‘big bad wolf’ from fairy tale lore, Powell’s occasional animalistic outbursts hint at his true lupine identity. Powell is not a werewolf in the traditional sense but his flesh is merely sheep’s clothing for the true demonic presence inside.

The fairy tale themes that pervade the film are accompanied by a very unique aesthetic which mixes together German expressionism and American film noir to create a surrealistic, dream-like atmosphere. This comes to a peak when John and his younger sister Pearl flee down the river at night to escape from the clutches of Powell. The river, lit only by the moon and the stars, is quite noticeably artificial but this only lends to its phantasmagoric properties and it’s haunting, almost transcendental power. Oddly enough, the scene is evocative of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with numerous species of animals appearing along the riverbank that don’t interact with the children but nevertheless give off a protective vibe. The scene shows that the two innocent children are at one with nature in a kind of Edenic harmony – protected by the very deity that Reverend Powell purports to serve.

Charles Laughton described The Night of the Hunter as a “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale” and starring as the elderly Rachel Cooper, the Mother Goose he was referring to, is none other than silent film star Lilian Gish. Laughton wanted the film to have the feel of silent cinema and whilst preparing for the film he watched many of the works of D.W. Griffith – the father of American cinema. Gish herself was the lead in several of Griffith’s films and by casting her Laughton had a living, breathing connection to the era that he wanted to capture. Cooper adopts John and Pearl as her own children when she picks them up from the riverbank and proceeds to protect them from Powell when he finally tracks them down.

At its core, The Night of the Hunter is a traditional tale of good versus evil albeit one depicted in an adroit, subtle manner. The battle between the forces of good (Miss Cooper) and evil (Harry Powell) is spine-chillingly tense, played out through an eerie duet of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. The religious connotations of the hymn makes the battle seem like two opposing forces are wrestling for God’s strength but the juxtaposing of Cooper and Powell has the effect of making the scene appear like a criticism of religion. The characters are equally devoted to their faith but their beliefs materialise in very different ways – Laughton’s way of communicating that religion is as much of a source of evil as it is a source of good.

 

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