The Night of the Hunter
Genre: Drama, Thriller and Adaptation
Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.
Release Date: September 29th , 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Laughton
Actors: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
"Threatening, murderous and cruel, the intimidating gaze and slow, solemn drawl of Powell is pure movie magic."
Bizarre and frightening, Charles Laughton's only directorial effort brandished the classic The Night of the Hunter, a vicious tale of a ruthless murderer in search of a stolen fortune guarded by two young children. Laughton was supposedly so disappointed by the poor reception in 1955 upon the film’s original release that he decided never to direct again. As a dark and morbid examination of an unreasoning killer and an analyzation of the power of goodness and the innocence of children, The Night of the Hunter earned a spot on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Thrills list and is now considered a masterpiece.

Bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a fortune for his young son John and daughter Pearl before he's taken away to prison. While in prison, he meets suspicious preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to get him to give away the secret to his treasure. When Harper is executed, Powell goes to his house and courts his widow Willa Parker (Shelley Winters), hoping to interrogate the children. When they refuse to tell him the whereabouts of the ill-gotten goods, he murders Willa and hunts the fleeing children across the state.

A deceivingly peaceful opening sequence with serene music and twinkling stars sets up a narrative that is considerably curious, and foreshadows imminent danger. A similarly tranquil score resonates throughout most of the film, greatly contrasting the horrifying violence depicted (or often suggested) onscreen. While we are deceived by the music, the film focuses on the themes of innocence, good vs. evil, the power of youth, and the corruption of religion. Particularly interesting is the choice of pure evil being represented by a man of God. Almost antireligious, The Night of the Hunter demonstrates how religion can blind people from the horrors of the world (especially with Willa’s character) and it can be used to ignore obvious atrocities. The children in the film are less easily deluded, and the balance of good and evil takes a unique turn when they must confront Powell without the help of even-minded adults.

As with other popular movie villains, such as Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Pinhead from Hellraiser, Robert Mitchum's evil preacher is the most impressive aspect of the film, and therefore is enjoyed and revered more than the story itself. Threatening, murderous and cruel, the intimidating gaze and slow, solemn drawl of Powell is pure movie magic. Famously displaying the tattoos of “love” and “hate” on his knuckles, this villain surpasses the importance and morals of the film and is memorable long after the film is finished.

Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) plays a benevolent savior for the children when they encounter her during their escape, and her character poses a peculiarly contrary subject. Representing the opposite of Mitchum's evil, her narration to the audience and reasoning for dealing with Mitchum's threatening presence slows down the suspense of the film and creates an ambiguous moral lesson. Her love and caring are something the children have been without for so long and yet their strength shown throughout the taxing chase by Powell proves that her presence is far from necessary to thwart the efforts of the killer.

At once condemning religion through the misuse of it by the various characters, and then praising it by using it to counter the negative affect Harry has on the kids, The Night of the Hunter raises many questions. Why does Rachel use biblical stories to soothe the children, when their blindly religious mother succumbed to a fate that can be blamed entirely on her empty beliefs? And why does Rachel fear Powell, yet waits to call the police until after she is forced to shoot at him during the night? By the unexpectedly simple conclusion we don’t get to see Powell suffer or pay for his crimes, so the resolve doesn’t leave us with much comfort other than knowing that the children are finally free – and even then, the mental trauma has already taken its toll.

- Mike Massie

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