Night of the Hunter
Like a child fixed in a nightmare “The Night of the Hunter” is a fairytale-like movie about murder, exile and trepidation. It is about solitude in the Great Depression and dangers lurking in the shadows. But it is also about protecting the fragile beauty of this world, survival and learning how to grow brave and strong.
Robert Mitchum plays wandering preacher Harry Powell. With H-A-T-E and L-O-V-E tattooed rather boldly on his fists, he is the lone wolf taking advantage of unsuspecting widows for their money. This movie is full of iconic imagery, sometimes with old German storytelling influences, sometimes Freudian; this is a film noir but with a rural American twist.
Above all this movie is mesmerizingly beautiful. While there are shadows, there is also light. Lilian Gish plays Rachel Cooper, a self professed “strong tree with branches for many birds.” She has found herself caregiver to abandoned and orphaned children stuck in the wilderness around the region of the Ohio River.
It is up to her to protect two children from the “preacher.” Metaphorically speaking she is a bird herself who unfolds her wings to protect little ducklings, because as she would say “It’s a hard world for little things.”
And indeed this film shines its brightest during the scenes in which little Pearl (played by Sally Jane Bruce) and her older brother John (Billy Chapin) are exiled to the wilderness to escape the clutches of Harry Powell. Director Charles Laughton shows a knack for finding beauty in solitude and danger.
When the stakes are at their highest and danger seems to abound for the children, the story also seems at its calmest and most serene. It is hauntingly beautiful depiction of the wild where the hunters of the night depend on the calm to make their catch.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez and Laughton took advantage of black and white film to turn the dark shadows into something sinister and grotesque. They made it look easy compared to today’s filming techniques, but to achieve the contrast, a great deal of skill must have been used.
Being filmed in 1955, “The Night of the Hunter” might seem old fashioned but it has timeless qualities making it more popular today than the languid response of 60 years ago. The fragility, solitude and isolation of this film seems to mirror what we face in this pandemic. And today’s divisive societal problems seem to reflect mostly on those taking advantage of that fragility in society.
Harry Powell, the wolf-like preacher who lures unsuspecting people into danger reflects on any number of cons and pretenders we see today. Just as eerie as his character are the familiar techniques by which he gaslights his unsuspecting victims.
Lastly, that we should learn to trust again and not grow too trepidatious is a lesson the young boy John is forced to confront once his trauma comes to a head in the climax. As this film comes to a wrap, movie goers will feel perhaps unease which can send chills down your spine.
But that unease is relieved as Rachel Cooper plays the part of protector whom understands her part to play in this dangerous world, to look after the most vulnerable lot in this world, particularly children.
What we have is beautiful cinematography which haunts the subconscious mind and an enduring commentary about how we might deal with strangers. A true classic, “The Night of the Hunter” is available from The Criterion Collection as a remastered and widescreen presentation which enhances the quality and presentation for fans and new viewers alike.