THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Charles Laughton, a consummate British actor of stage and film, directed only one film during his lifetime, but he made it count. The ubiquitous novelist, screenwriter, and film critic James Agee provided the fact-based source material that Laughton sculpted into his personalized masterpiece of Gothic cinema.
By incorporating angular set and lighting designs — inspired by such German expressionist films as “Nosferatu,” Laughton created an American Gothic style that informed generations of filmmakers in various genres. Although critics dismissed “The Night of the Hunter” at the time of its release in 1955, it eventually earned its rightful place among the best films of all time.
Laughton took an innovative approach toward satirizing America’s Christian belief system and methods of manipulating its society. The setting is West Virginia during the Great Depression. Robert Mitchum plays serial killer Harry Powell. He marries women, kills them and steals their money. Harry dresses as a preacher. He wears a plantation necktie and wide-brim black hat. He peppers his language with biblical phrases. “L-O-V-E” is tattooed on the knuckles of Harry’s right hand. “H-A-T-E” is tattooed on the left. Reverend Harry wins friends and influences strangers with a well-practiced sermon about a battle between good and evil, now an iconic scene in cinema. Harry demonstrates the conflict by locking his fingers and twisting his hands back and forth as he displays his mastery of evangelical showmanship. Privately, Harry likes to carry on conversations with God. He believes in the Holy Ghost. Or maybe just himself.
The movie opens with a group of children discovering the corpse of one of Harry’s female victims. The narrative cuts to Ben Harper, a family man on the run from police after carrying out a bank robbery. Approaching sirens get louder as Ben decides where to hide the money before making his son John (Billy Chapin) and younger daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) promise to never reveal the secret.
Arrested for car theft, Harry is thrown in a cell with Ben (Peter Graves). Ben talks in his sleep. Ben’s execution coincides with Harry’s release. Harry goes straight to Ben’s weak-willed widow Willa (Shelly Winters) and insinuates himself into her heart. Marriage follows. The crux of the story coalesces around the couple’s would-be conjugal bed, where Harry makes clear that the purpose of sex is only for procreation. Laughton’s Gothic melodrama explodes. Since Willa agrees she doesn’t want more children, intercourse is off the table. Only Harry’s fire-and-brimstone speechifying will guide Willa’s psyche through prayer.
The centerpiece of the film is a lingering underwater shot of Willa’s corpse sitting in the front seat of the Model T in which Harry buries her in a nearby river. Laughton shows the chilling scene from different angles to quell any hope that the victim might still have a breath of life left in her. The horror is real. So is the genius of this unforgettable film.
Rated PG-13. 99 mins.
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