THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER A
USA (93 mi) 1955 d: Charles Laughton
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
—Matthew 7:18, 20, The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum’s) ominous introduction
But there are things you hate, Lord, perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.
—The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)
This is another film that when released in 1955, it was maligned as hopelessly out of synch with American postwar sensibilities and was yet another film that failed at the box office, which so disappointed the director he never made another film, yet remains one of the greatest American films ever made. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, adapted for the screen by James Agee, who had a severe drinking problem and died the year the film was released, so the director finished the script, though it largely coincides with Agee’s first draft. Unlike the uproar with the publishing of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927), which took satirical swipes at attitudes within evangelical circles in the 1920’s, denounced from pulpits across the country, where the city of Boston banned the book, this novel was based on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Using a hybrid of different styles, the film is something of an oddity, using a German Expressionist lighting design, gorgeously filmed by Stanley Cortez, honored for his deep focus cinematography in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), but also the manner of a Brothers Grimm children’s story, using elaborate artificialized visual fantasy with a seething undercurrent of social malaise hovering underneath. Despite the fairy tale element, this veers into film noir territory, expressing cynical attitudes and deeply repressed sexual motivations, where God (who is spoken to directly) is literally seen as a tolerant accomplice to murder: “Not that you mind the killings! There's plenty of killings in your book, Lord.” Easily the most outstanding aspect is a brilliantly evil performance by Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell (who as it turns out, directed the children scenes, as Laughton had little affection for them), a psychopathic preacher (needing no make-up) that kills unsuspecting widows for their money, who spends the film on a relentless search for hidden money that he knows is in the hands of two children, ten-year old John (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
So while this is a murder mystery about a serial killer on the loose, it’s simultaneously a nightmarish child horror story seen through the eyes of the children, given a strange Biblical context, including repeating refrains from a familiar hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” first heard here The Night of the Hunter: The Showalter Hymn, when it is first YouTube (1:26). Mitchum’s baritone voice was never used to better effect, and while the hymn is a song of reassurance and faith, here it is continually used to announce his menacing presence. Set in the rural Bible belt during the Depression, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank stealing $10,000, quickly giving it to his two young children to hide before he is arrested and hauled off to jail, but not before forcing them both to swear not to tell anyone, not even their mother. Sharing the same prison cell, the Preacher (arrested on car theft) overhears him talk in his sleep about hidden money, which may as well be the voice of God speaking. After Harper is executed, the Preacher, with his fire and brimstone drawl, dressed in a cleric’s black cloth and a wide brim puritan hat, pays a visit to the grieving widow Willa, Shelley Winters, who is surrounded by her overly pious community, especially Mrs. Spoon (Evelyn Varden), who keeps her nose in everybody’s business. While the entire community is smitten with the young Preacher, it’s Mrs. Spoon (an anonymous presence of Evil hidden within the flock of Christian sheep, who can later be seen leading a lynch mob against him!) who gushes over his presence and all but throws Wilma at his feet in marriage, though John keeps a healthy distance and has his suspicions, as all this Preacher keeps asking him about is the money. No one believes John, however, as the Preacher has everyone convinced the money was thrown in a river, especially his mother, though he keeps tightening the screws on John, especially when he terrorizes him with the thought of becoming his new father through marriage, a man with the words “love” and hate” tattooed on the knuckles of each hand, seen here: Love - Hate: Night of the Hunter - YouTube (57 seconds), turned into a freakish circus performance told in the form of a Biblical parable.
Wilma’s wedding night is a thing for the ages, as Powell is not interested in sex, only wallowing in all the as yet undiscovered money, where the naively eager expectant bride is belittled and humiliated to discover the puritanical wrath of God coming down upon her in the form of her new tyrannical husband who lays down the law that sex is only for procreation. As if under the spell of his personal magnetism, we see her next sweating profusely, framed by burning torches at a revival meeting, confessing her wedding night sinful expectations as a means to arouse the crowd into a virtuous frenzy. But when she overhears the Preacher’s sinister threats to her son, this leads to a maniacally crazed ritual where her soft narration of receiving God’s salvation results in a baptism of the barbaric and the grotesque The Night Of The Hunter - Wife Killer YouTube (2:11), leaving her at the bottom of the river. With no one left to protect them, the children are finally at the Preacher’s mercy. Realizing his murderous intentions, they slip away into the night and escape in a raft down the river, producing some of the most extraordinary images of the film, abandoning all pretense at realism and embracing the children’s point of view, almost like turning the pages of a child’s picture book. The artificiality of these river sequences is dazzling, often resembling a Huckleberry Finn wonderland, where Mitchum’s foreboding presence follows them everywhere, seen on the distant horizon riding a horse. But the real surprise is yet to come, where Laughton picks silent film goddess Lillian Gish from the D.W. Griffith era to sweep the kids up in her arms and take them into her protective custody, as she has several other abandoned young children as well, which changes the entire tone of the film. Rooted in a strong faith in The Bible, often telling them stories, Gish as the counter opposite to Mitchum couldn’t be more intriguing, a hard-nosed woman who practices tough love. When the inevitable occurs and the Preacher comes for the children, she knows a fraud when she sees one, leading to a delicious Good/Evil co-mingling refrain of the hymn, where Gish, rifle in hand, joins along, but includes what the Preacher leaves out, the lyric reference to “Jesus” Robert Mitchum - The Night of the Hunter - "Leaning" - YouTube (2:12). All set in a weird, exquisitely beautiful and eerie atmosphere that feels timeless, not at all reminiscent of the 50’s, where the subversive nature of the film recalls Douglas Sirk, this is a truly exquisite allegory of innocence, evil, and hypocrisy, selected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” certainly influencing later directors like Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, and the Coen Brothers.