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 the Gateway Film Center 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 with another viewing as part of Movie Club Challenge/Where to Begin With Film Noir/Neo-Noir films.
Synopsis: a religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real father hid $10,000 that he’d stolen in a robbery.
We start this with 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 women before he murders and robs 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. This is something that he uses to tell the story of how they’re connected as well as how love conquers hate. He carries a switchblade as well.
It then shifts to Ben Harper (Peter Graves). The police are after him. He killed a couple of guys and stole money. He makes his son John (Billy Chapin) and daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) promise they won’t tell anyone where he is hiding it, 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 conducted before he reveals the information. Ben is executed by hanging.
Back in the town, Willa is shunned by most everyone and her children are bullied. John looks out for his sister. Things 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, even murder.
Now I wanted to go a little bit vague on the recap, even though this film is 60+ years old. It has an interesting concept, especially for the era that it came out. The first time I saw this, I apparently thought it was okay, but I wasn’t high on it. I will admit, I wasn’t as cultured back then and diving more into films has given me a greater appreciation. After multiple viewings, there is more I’ve gotten out of it.
To start off with, this has element that if you know my taste is something I love. We have the corruption of religion here. Harry uses it to his advantage for sure. The first thing is that he seems to only 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. His strong personality allows him brainwash people. An example is that he gets Willa to change her ways. She is a weak woman that he influences her so much. I think part of this is the time as we’re in the Great Depression here. Women were supposed to be submissive 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 only John, then finally Pearl who sees his real side until they get to Rachel Cooper’s (Lillian Gish).
I personally don’t consider this horror, but I do think it is close enough. It has enough elements for me to write this review and include it in my horror film research that I’m doing as well. Part of it is the time that this was made. 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. Maybe not necessarily with the sexual violence, but the lengths he’ll go. It is interesting though as an actor, Mitchum was the same character of Max in the original version of the other movie. He is relentless in his pursuit of the children, which would be a scary way to live. There is an 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 good. I even think once he kills Willa and takes over as the guardian is great. Seeing him manipulate everyone is terrifying since we know the truth. I don’t have the same issue that I used to though. It does slow down with the children fleeing, but this time I picked up on how they’re doing what they can to survive and seeing how hard life is. It isn’t until they meet Ms. Cooper, who takes them in and gives them protection. She also molds them into better people.
That should be enough for the story so I’ll go to the acting which is good. Mitchum is such a villain and is perfect for this role. It is one of his more iconic ones and I 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 is in over her head. When someone like Harry comes around, she loses herself. It is like 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 as well knowing that he’d go on to have a good career in acting.
There’s not much 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 builds a feeling of uncomfortability which I enjoyed. This is interesting as it has a surreal look to it There are a few times that we can see they’re on a stage where the backgrounds aren’t where they are really. I don’t mind that. 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 solid. Overall, it 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 worked well.
In conclusion, my enjoyment of the film came up from multiple viewings. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a horror film, it is dark in the subject matter and Harry as a character is terrifying. I love the idea of him using religion to justify the horrible crimes he is committing. The acting is good. The cinematography is well done. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but it doesn’t necessarily need them. I also like how the soundtrack is used here. Overall, I did like this one and I can see why 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 is worth your time.
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10