An Appreciation – The Night of the Hunter
When The Night of the Hunter (1955) was first released, it was a financial and critical failure. But like many great films, it endured beyond its initial reception to become an embraced classic. Part of the reason why we remember it over a half century later is because of how much it is unlike any other movie. It is a true original, unable to be categorized in any specific box or genre, existing within parameters set only by itself. Very few films from any era combine such a bold combination of high end artistry – from a writing, directing, visual, sound, and performance standpoint. Even today, it stands as a peculiar outlier, standing firmly apart from the rest of the pack.
It was the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton, known for his character work in Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and Island of Lost Souls (1932), just to name of a few. Sources debate why this was the only production he took the reins over. Some believe the negative reception caused him to back away from future directorial efforts, others claim he was more inclined to direct theater work. Whatever the case may be, this singular offering stands as a visionary piece of art, hinting at what could have been a promising career if he had the opportunity to continue behind the camera.
Laughton – who directed the screenplay by famed film critic James Agee (adapting Davis Grubb‘s novel) – had such a bold confidence with the material that it’s difficult to even describe what kind of movie this is. It’s kind of like a film noir, but not really. It shares similar traits in terms of the visual style, but it doesn’t quite fit into the definition of classic noir. It’s kind of like a horror film, but one that attempts to reinvent what “horror” meant at that point, instead of following the popular trends of the time. The classic horror shot where a villain stands at the top of a staircase looking down at his victims may have very well originated from here.
Along with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Laughton borrowed heavily from German Expressionism to create a unique visual aesthetic. There is a heavy emphasis on the contrast between light and shadow. The black and white photography lends to a moody atmosphere – like a living, breathing dream. During night scenes, shadows seem to cross characters’ faces almost sideways. Light sources come from weird angles. The set design is noticeably artificial, lending to the unnatural tone. Farm houses, stables, and other buildings are built like looming shadows, with uncomfortably small rooms and narrow hallways. Bedrooms have sharp corners, with minimalistic decoration. This all generates a feeling of claustrophobia, as though characters are trapped within their own living spaces. Where the daytime keeps us safe in the natural world, nighttime tosses us deep into a shadow world.
So, what exactly does this deliberate design contribute to the narrative? The mixture of noir and horror result in a macabre, grotesque folktale. Set in West Virginia during the Great Depression, The Night of the Hunter plays out like a dark fairytale, and at the center is the evil beast: the preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). “Beast” is the appropriate term – the further into the story we go, the more animal like Harry becomes. Harry is a criminal who seduces women under the guise of religious morality, only to steal everything they’re worth (including their lives). Harry meets fellow criminal Ben Harper (Peter Graves) as Ben is set to be executed. Harry learns that Ben – before being captured – has hidden $10,000 somewhere on his family’s property. After Harry is released, he heads directly to Ben’s home in an attempt to ensnare his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and win the trust of his children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) so that he can find the money.
Robert Mitchum is one of the great Hollywood stars, and yet sometimes when modern audiences think of “great actors” his name is not always one of the first to be mentioned. Some critics have claimed his style is too laid back, almost to the point of disinterest. As Harry Powell, Mitchum more than proves that he had the ability to deliver a performance of great depth. Harry is a classic movie villain because Mitchum was able to incorporate so many different characteristics within the role. Harry is charming, authoritative, and can win over a crowd with his sermons. But he can also be a tyrant, an unpredictable and uncontrollable force of evil. He is a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Watch as Harry slowly wins over the heart of the naïve (and foolish) Willa, using religion and guilt to marry her and then shame her for her sexual urges. He practically bends her to his will, causing her to acquiesce to his every wish and desire. Soon enough, she is preaching his sermons for him. Mitchum has never been better than he is as Harry, maybe because he plays off of Winters so well, who delivers just as good a performance as Willa. Willa’s death scene is one of the most bizarre and disturbing sequences of any movie, with the design of the room and both Mitchum and Winters acting like gargoyles out of some gothic story. Everything about it feels alien – from the way Harry reaches out toward the window to Willa talking as if in a trance. Even when Harry slaps her, her reaction is so incredibly strange. This final interaction is punctuated by that famous shot of Willa drowned under water, tied to her car. The ghostly image of Winters’ floating hair is one of the most surreal and haunting moments ever captured.