Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest and most criminally undervalued American classics ever (at least at the time of its release). A nightmarish, expressionistic genre mishmash that only gets more engaging with each passing viewing. If that all makes this film seem a bit too heady, and the prospect of viewing it as a chore, rest assured it isn’t. This is an immensely enjoyable film to experience, equally worthwhile if taken at face value or if you’re more knowledgeable regarding its influences and thematic content.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a murderous preacher who uses his faith in God to justify every single one of the atrocities he commits, no doubt a piece of dramatic symbolism that remains all the more relevant now-a-days than when the film first premiered. He comes across a recently widowed woman whose husband allegedly left behind a fortune from a bank robbery which led to his imprisonment and death, leaving his young children as the only ones who know where it’s hidden. Enter Powell, who weds quickly their mother and attempts to swoop in and nab the money, a plan he’s executed (he he) dozens of times beforehand under different circumstances. From there, the story escalades in a number of different ways, which ultimately leads to the children going on the run from Powell for a significant portion of the runtime.
Mitchum’s performance in this has gone down in cinematic history as one of the greatest boogeymen of all time; a sweet talking, charismatic killer, the ‘wolf’ amongst the flock of sheep, if you will. The child actors don’t fare quite as well, but they play their parts admirably, and silent film star Lilian Gish makes a memorable late appearance as a kindly woman who takes the children into her home as they attempt to evade their would-be captor. Gish’s role provides a gentler, more loving counterpart to Mitchum’s ghoulish killer, a paradox which culminates in the film’s standout scene, where the two harmonize over the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Alms’ just moments before their climactic confrontation. It’s a moment which perfectly represents the spiritual tug of war between the forces of good and evil at the center of the film, visually accentuated by its moody cinematography, alternating between heavenly pools of luminosity and intimidating pits of emptiness.
As mentioned before, way back at the time of this film’s release in 1955, it wasn’t terribly well received by the general public or the critics, to put it generously. In fact, it got damn near rejected by just about everyone right from the start. Although it’s much more accessible by audience standards today, it’s not hard to imagine why it was such a critical failure initially. For starters, this is one bizarre, offbeat piece of filmmaking, especially for the time it was released. So much so that it probably conflicted with a lot of the more wholesome, less challenging fare that was also available in theaters around the same time. Hardly enough to justify its public dismissal of course, but not altogether impossible to comprehend how and why it happened that way. Other highly regarded masterworks which faced similar troubles upon their premieres are films such as like Vertigo and Blade Runner, just to name a few.
The worst part about all that seemingly unrelated background information is what came of it, or what *didn’t* come of it, to be more accurate. Due to the universally unfavorable response to this film, it discouraged actor turned director Charles Laughton from ever directing again. Which is a damn shame, to say the least. The fact that we were deprived of anything else that even approaches the level of genius displayed in this film is a crime, and the directing career of Charles Laughton that never was remains one of the greatest missed opportunities in all of film history.
It’s also worth noting that the entire film is shot and edited to look like that of a dream, or a nightmare, depending on how you interpret it. There are noticeable visual influences from the German Expressionist era throughout the entire film, with heavy emphasis on shadows, as well as an ever present sense of dream logic, the feeling of running from an inescapable danger – no matter how far you go and how fast you are, he’s always just a few steps behind you. All of this aided by some of the most gorgeous black and white cinematography the fifties had to offer. Even if the plebs who saw this film during its initial run in theaters didn’t respond well to it overall, even they couldn’t say it was due to a lack of visual stylization or skillful atmosphere building.
The Night of the Hunter is approaching its 60th anniversary, and it’s about time we all give it its due and remind ourselves of what a piece of pure cinema is really like. This is the kind of film that has no modern equivalents; one that is unlike any other film in existence, and is a true one of a kind marvel. It deserves to be recognized as such.