There aren’t many films from the classic Hollywood era that feel quite so refreshing, or original as Charles Laughton‘s The Night Of The Hunter. One of the greatest actors of all-time, this was his first and only foray into directing, but what he accomplishes in one film is incredible. A unique Film Noir fairytale, it’s an incredibly assured debut, and it’s frankly a crime that the negative reception deterred Laughton from directing again, but thankfully it’s been reassessed over time, and is now rightfully seen as a masterpiece.
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a murderous preacher with his own twisted form of christianity that “The Almighty and me worked out betwixt us”. While imprisoned for a petty crime, he learns about a hidden fortune stolen by bank robber (Peter Graves), then sets about seducing the man’s fragile widow (Shelley Winters) to find the loot, only to be thwarted by her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
Mitchum gives his most iconic performance as Powell. It’s a tricky needle to thread, as he alternates between being charismatic, comic and incredibly sinister, and nails each of these beats perfectly. Decked out all in black with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles, he’s an imposing figure, and his idiosyncratic speech makes him a unique baddie – his sing song delivery of “Children… Children!” never fails to send shivers down my spine. To the children he’s more than human, especially in his relentless pursuit of them, all the while singing his ominous signature hymn – as John says, “Don’t he ever sleep?”
This is exemplified in the scene where he first chases the children into the river – John and Pearl move agonizingly slowly as we cut back to Powell gaining on them, and when they finally push their little boat into the river, his primal howl is the stuff of nightmares. Contrasted with this is how Mitchum plays some scenes for macabre laughs – the moment where he chases the children out of the cellar, it almost resembles a slapstick cartoon, but for his outstretched arms reaching for them. It’s both comic and nightmarish, and subtly edited to make him appear inhuman.
Chapin and Bruce, while not the best actors in the world, have an innocence that makes them incredibly believable. Their trip downriver, as Pearl sings to herself, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful sequences committed to film. It also sums up the films general aesthetic really well, an eerie contrast of sinister imagery and a childlike point of view.
Legend of the silent screen Lillian Gish is also effortlessly warm as the shrewd and formidable spinster who takes the children in – Gish didn’t make many sound features, but here she more than holds her own against Mitchum, and is the epitome of decency, contrasting with his slick religious patter – demonstrating how religion can be used by the best and the worst of humanity.
Lovingly restored by Criterion, this looks gorgeous, emphasising Stanley Cortez‘s striking cinematography, with ink black shadows, sharp silhouettes and angular set design contributing to the German Expressionist aesthetic that permeates through the film – in particular the work of F.W. Murnau. It’s also evocative of the silent era (most notably D.W. Griffith) through the use of old fashioned techniques, like iris shots, while in other parts it almost resembles an animated film; specifically the part section of the cellar, or when Rachel is dragging the children through the city.
The Night Of The Hunter has cast a huge shadow over cinema, influencing directors as varied as Martin Scorsese, Guillermo Del Toro and the Coen Brothers. A wonderfully creative combination of silent cinema techniques, American gothic aesthetics and stylised cinematography, there’s never been another film like it.
Well, this is a treat – as well as the usual host of extras (including an incisive conversation with Laughton expert Simon Callow and an in-depth commentary) this release comes with two hours worth of invaluable behind-the-scenes footage. This is an insightful and intimate look at the filming process, and quite a find for an era where this kind of material is incredibly rare!