CLASSIC MOVIE SUNDAYS: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Georgios Merkouris / March 31, 2019
( 2 min read )
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
Runtime: 92 min
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, James Gleason, Evelyn Warden, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce etc.
In retrospect, it is not hard to see why a film like “The Night of the Hunter” was a commercial failure when it first came out. A Depression era Southern Gothic with Grimm fairy tale and horror movie overtones was hardly a box office draw in Eisenhower-era America. Add to this an inexperienced director and two notorious alcoholics in the lead roles and you got yourself a recipe for disaster. What is baffling is how it could have ever possibly been a critical failure as well. It is a haunting masterpiece that surpasses any expectations viewers might have.
The plot focuses on Reverend Harry Powell (played superbly by Robert Mitchum), a corrupt pastor and serial killer who attempts to seduce an unsuspecting widow in order to steal the $10,000 fortune her husband, who was executed for murder, left behind. Her children are the only ones who know where the money is hidden. Powell ultimately marries the woman and eventually murders her. Yet, he is unable to get a hold of the money. The children end up escaping and taking sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (silent film legend Lillian Gish), a kind but tough old woman who looks after runaway children. The entire film is portrayed as a battle of good against evil.
What sets “The Night of the Hunter” apart from other films is its now famous aesthetics. Thanks to the superb camera work of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, viewers are provided with a vast array of striking images which are poetically beautiful. Legendary actor Charles Laughton, who directed the film, was very much influenced by German Expressionism and the film reflects it in every single shot. There are sharp contrasts between black and white that reflect the central theme of good battling evil. James Agee’s sublime script is filled with memorable scenes. In particular, the river chase is a jaw-dropping sequence that remains disturbing and exciting even after all these years.
With its critical re-evaluation, the movie has been praised endlessly and has ultimately become a pop culture fixture. Powell’s iconic LOVE-HATE tattoos, in particular, are referenced across a wide variety of media, from Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” to hip-hop music and “The Simpsons”. This was not the case in 1955, when the movie was released. Mitchum and Winters, though both admirable performers, were not box office draws. In particular Mitchum, who was arrested for drug possession four years prior to the film’s release, was a notoriously difficult and surly individual towards whom the public was not drawn. In a promotional interview on the Ed Sullivan show, both stars showed up drunk and unable to speak properly, which contributed to the film’s dismal performance in the box office. As a consequence, Laughton never directed another film and cinema lovers are left wondering about what might have been. Yet, with only one credit as a director, he still managed to create something extraordinary that has influenced American directors ever since. “The Night of the Hunter” is a treasure of Hollywood filmmaking that leaves a deep impact after every viewing.
You can find 3 (other) reasons why to watch The Night of the Hunter, in this trailer: