Love Fights Hate in “The Night of the Hunter”

In addition to a gallery of memorable performances, actor Charles Laughton’s cinematic legacy includes one fling with directing — but oh what a fling it is! The Night of the Hunter is a haunting, poetic film that explores themes ranging from the battle between good and evil to the propensity of Nature to protect the innocent. The film also provides Robert Mitchum with his best role as Harry Powell, evil incarnate disguised as a preacher (what makes the character even more chilling is that Harry believes he has a special relationship with the Almighty).

The film’s opening is pure Hitchcock, with a group of frolicking kids discovering a corpse in a cellar. In the next scene, we see Harry Powell driving down the countryside, talking to himself about the “six… twelve widows” he has murdered. When Harry is arrested—for car theft—he becomes the cell mate of Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper stole $10,000 and accidentally killed a man. However, before he was arrested, he disposed of the money with his two children, John (who’s about 11) and his younger sister Pearl. Harper makes his children swear to never divulge the hidden location of the money, not even to their mother (“You’ve got common sense; she ain’t.”).

The lure of $10,000 (a lot of money during the Depression) appeals greatly to Harry. Upon his release from prison, he looks up the pretty young widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). But young John (Billy Chapin) takes an instant dislike to the new preacher wooing the mother; it’s as if only the innocence of childhood can recognize the true nature of evil. John tries to protect his family, but when tragedy strikes, he and Pearl flee with Harry in pursuit.

The Night of the Hunter is a virtual textbook on filmmaking, with sound and image blended effortlessly to create mood. Harry’s entrances in the film are accompanied by a jarring, foreboding piece of music. Even more disturbing is when we hear Harry before we see him. In one scene, his singing filters into the children’s bedroom as he waits patiently outside the front gate (almost like a predator lurking for its prey).

Laughton’s striking use of shadows and silhouettes recall the Expressionistic German films of the 1920s (e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I suspect much of the credit for the brilliant lighting belongs to cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a skilled craftsman who labored in routine films except for this one and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

As Harry Powell, Mitchum gives the performance of a lifetime. With “love” tattooed on one hand and “hate” on the other, he describes the struggle between them in one of the famous scenes in film history. To complement Mitchum’s performance, Lillian Gish brings quiet strength to her role as his eventual adversary. Just as the animals watch over the children as they drift down the river in a boat, Gish’s Mrs. Cooper guards the children (almost as if she personifies Mother Nature). At one point in the film, she even says: “I’m a strong tree with many branches for many birds.”

Since Charles Laughton never directed another picture, it’s hard to gauge how much of The Night of the Hunter was his vision. Screenwriter James Agee, already a renowned film critic, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But for all their talent, neither Agee, Cortez, nor Mitchum made another movie to rival this one. So either it was sheer luck that all the talents gelled so wonderfully on The Night of the Hunter or Laughton provided the guidance to make it work. I tend to believe the credit belongs to Mr. Laughton.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!