The Night of the Hunter
the night of the hunter | charles laughton | james agee | robert mitchum | shelley winters | lillian gish | based on | novel | davis grubb | crime | drama | film noir | film-noir | thriller | united states | james gleason | billy chapin | sally jane bruce | religion
Film: The Night of the Hunters
Director: Charles Laughton
Writer: James Agee
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish
This is a film that when I heard it was a playing at my local theater as part of its Horror 101, I was intrigued. I originally thought I hadn’t seen it, but when I went on the Internet Movie Database, I had it rated so it’s been while. The other thing was debating if it was horror or not. Upon this viewing, I’ve decided that it is horror enough and I’ll get into that later. I also gave this another viewing as part of an October movie challenge for the highest rated film from the 1950’s in the ‘horror’ genre. The synopsis is a religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real father hid $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery.
We start this film of with some floating heads as an older woman tells them a story. It also feels like this all happened in the past and she is recounting the events. We then meet Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He’s driving a stolen car and he gets busted for it. It is during the meeting with him that we learn he’s a religious man. He has married to quite a few women before he murdered and robbed them. He believes that God has put him here for him to spread his word. He also has Love tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand with Hate tattooed on the left. He carries a switchblade as well.
It then shifts to Ben Harper (Peter Graves). The police are after him, as he stole a bunch of money. He makes his son John (Billy Chapin) and daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) promise they won’t tell anyone where he is hiding the money, including to their mother Willa (Shelley Winters). The police arrive and they take him into custody.
Ben ends up being cellmates with Harry and he knows about the stolen money. He tries to get Ben to tell him where it is hidden through talking to him in his sleep. This upsets Ben who at one point strikes him. His sentence is carried out before he can. Ben is executed by hanging.
Back in the town, Willa is kind of shunned by everyone and her children are bullied. John does look out for his sister. Things all change when Harry arrives, pretending he worked at the prison and that is where he met Ben. He convinces Willa that he loves her and that the money is at the bottom of the river. We see how convincing he can be when he brainwashes her and starts to preach to the town. All the while, he is working on John and Pearl, trying to figure out where the money is hidden. Harry will stop at nothing to get to it.
Now I wanted to go a little bit vague on the recap, even though this film is 60+ years old. It really has an interesting concept, especially for the era that it came out. The first time I saw this, I apparently that was okay, but I wasn’t high on it. I will admit, I wasn’t as cultured back then and really diving more into films has given me a greater appreciation. After this second and now third viewing, there is a lot more I’ve gotten out of it.
To start off with, this film does something that if you know my taste is something I really like. We have the corruption of religion here. Harry uses it to his advantage for sure. The first thing is that he really only seems to follow the Old Testament. He justifies the horrible acts he does, because that section of the bible can be quite brutal. He believes that he can do whatever he wants if he does it in the name of God. He also really does brainwash Willa into changing her ways. She is such a weak woman that he influences her so much. I think part of this is the time period as we’re in the Great Depression here. Women were supposed to be subservient to their husbands. Since he is a man of ‘God’, everyone in the town falls in love with him. How things play out in the end is great for this and how the mob mentality can take over. It is really only John and then finally Pearl who sees his real side.
I personally don’t really consider this horror, but I do think it is close enough and has enough elements for me to write this review and I’m also including it in my horror film research that I’m doing as well. Harry is a killer without remorse. I think that if this film came out later, it would be much closer to what we see from Max Cady in Cape Fear remake. It is interesting though as actor Robert Mitchum was the same character of Max in the original Cape Fear. He is relentless in his pursuit of the children, which would be a scary way to live as well. There is a really unnerving feeling of never getting away from him as well as just that impending sense of doom. Going along with this, the dread of the religious song he is singing is great as well. You can hear it even when he’s far off.
Something that I used to have an issue with was the pacing though. My issue was that I felt like film drug in the second half. The set up to this is great. Getting to know how despicable Harry is and seeing how he preys on this film is really good. I even think once he kills Willa and takes over as the guardian is great, just seeing him manipulate everyone. I really don’t have the same issue that I used to though. It does slow down with the children fleeing, but this time I really picked up on how they’re doing what they can to survive and seeing how hard life is. It isn’t until they meet Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes them in and protects them. She also molds them into better people.
The acting for this film is really good though. Mitchum is such a villain and is perfect for this role. It is actually one of his more iconic ones and I really thought he does a great job here. I have trouble seeing him as a good guy for how he plays roles like this if I’m honest. I think Winters does a solid job as well. She is trying to be a good mother, but she really just is in over her head and when someone like Harry comes around, she loses herself. It is similar to people I know in real life. Gish is good as well in her protective role. She portrays a good mother in that she is stern, but will do what whatever she can for the children. I thought Chapin and Bruce were fine and the rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed. It was fun though to see Graves in such a small role.
There’s not really a lot to talk about the effects of the film as this came out in the 1950’s. I do think the backgrounds look interesting when we can hear Harry singing his song and he’s in the distance. It really did make me feel uncomfortable which I enjoyed. This is interesting as it has a surreal look to it There are a few times that we can see their on a stage where the backgrounds aren’t where they are really. The last things would be Willa in the car at the bottom of the pond. That was creepy. Aside from that I think we have good cinematography here for the era.
I’ve already touched on it a bit, but the soundtrack is pretty solid. Overall it really doesn’t stand out. Harry does sing the same song throughout and it is unnerving. He just keeps repeating the same words and it’s a religious song. Hearing this come from someone like him is quite eerie if I’m honest. There is also a scene where he is singing as well as Rachel which showing the duality of the two and it definitely worked well.
Now with that said, my enjoyment of the film definitely came up from my last viewing. This film even though I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a horror film, it definitely is quite dark in the subject matter and Harry as a character is quite terrifying. I love the idea of him using religious to justify the horrible crimes he is committing. The acting is really good. There’s not much in the way of effects, but it is shot very well. I also like how the soundtrack is used here. Overall I did like this film and it is considered a classic. I will warn you it is from the 1950’s and is black and white. If that’s not an issue, I’d say to give this a watch. It definitely is worth your time.
My Rating: 8 out of 10