The Night of the Hunter, 1955.
Directed by Charles Laughton.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce.
Two children are chased down the river in West Virginia by a man who claims to be a Preacher.
“Beware of false prophets. They will come to you in sheep’s clothing,” Mrs Cooper (Lillian Gish, the muse of D.W. Griffith) warns the camera in the film’s prologue, her head superimposed upon a starry night sky. Mrs Cooper doesn’t return until the final third of the film, but her guiding presence is felt throughout.
She is presented as a guardian angel of children, a fairy godmother – a protector against the fake Preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Establishing shots often swoop aerially from the sky, as though Mrs Cooper’s watches from above, while Powell hunts the children through the night like a big, bad wolf.
The children are John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce). One day their father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), returns home with a bloody hole in his chest and a bag full of stolen money. He hides his treasure and forces his children into swearing its secrecy – not even to tell Momma.
Officers arrive and handcuff Ben on the floor. “Don’t!” is all John can whimper, half aimed at the policemen, half aimed at his father for stealing his childhood with this burden. The boy is aged instantly by his secret. Harry, that fake Preacher, learns of the money when sharing a cell with Ben, who is waiting to hang.
Harry has made a strange pact with God. He mutters to the Lord as the crazy would to an imaginary friend. It allows him to claim his twisted beliefs as the convictions of God, and he wields it powerfully over the easily manipulated and weak.
Using his imposing charisma, Harry swiftly brainwashes and marries Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben Harper’s widow. Not a hint of his hidden callousness is detected, but John sees the evil in him. It is revealed to Willa on their honeymoon night, where Harry embarks on a condemning monologue against her wanting to consummate their marriage. The woman’s body is a temple for producing life, he preaches, not a slave to the lust of man. The terror is twofold. First at the grave error Willa has made, now committed to this faux-Holy man forever and ever. Second that Harry is not simply there for financial gain. He believes he is doing right by the Lord. He is truly a madman, becoming increasingly obsessed with the Harper kids’ money. He chases those two poor kids until they have nothing left, and they become lost in a sea of children orphaned by recession.
Mitchum’s Harry Powell might be cinema’s definitive psycho, with his booming New York baritone, sounding like a demented Yogi Bear. He’s a child-catcher, a fairy-tale villain, and as he howls and bangs at the basement door that he is at one point locked behind, you almost think he’ll roar “AND I’LL BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN!”
He has a perverse side, too. Along with the ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattoos across his knuckles, he always carries with him a switchblade. During fits of anger, he will finger the blade within his pocket, flicking it out through the fabric of his jacket in a phallic outburst. That these most commonly occur around women – in the striptease joint at the start, or when he treats the young Ruby (Gloria Castillo) to ice cream – hints towards a disgust at his own desires.
As the film progresses, the tone and narrative twist into a dark fairy-tale: the set and lighting become more expressive, the music increasingly disquieting. Shot with a deeply focused lens, Powell and Willa’s tall bedroom, with a slanted ceiling that points towards the night’s sky, momentarily takes the appearance of a church. This, along with other aesthetic tricks of superimposition and split focus, recall the experimental visual style of Citizen Kane.
Yet scenes of immense lyricism break up these dark episodes. As the two children gently sail down the river in their commandeered fishing boat with John fast asleep from the day’s chase, Pearl starts to sing. The scenery around them doesn’t appear real, as though the current has drifted them into an illustration from an old Hans Christian Anderson book. Animals are shown going about their daily business, indifferent to these two kids in the middle of nowhere, just as night is becoming day, escaping the mad Preacher who wants to slit their throats.
This was Charles Laughton’s only film he ever directed. He was an English actor who preferred to play his characters as large as his frame (he was Gracchus in Kubrick’s Spartacus, one of his last roles), and increasingly incompatible with a Hollywood that favoured realism. The Night of the Hunter channels his artistic expressionism and is all the richer for it.
But the film was a critical and commercial failure, and he was never behind the camera again. Now it sits in the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Cinema was denied a potentially great practitioner, and one cannot help recall those saddest words of tongue and pen: “It might have been”.
365 Days, 100 Films