Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Seen: On blu-ray on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

With its somewhat recent blu-ray release I feel like I've suddenly been hearing a lot about The Night of the Hunter, an idiosyncratic thriller with Robert Mitchum in an iconic psycho-preacher role. When bankrobber Ben Harper dies in prison, his preacher cellmate Harry Powell (Mitchum) tracks down his family to seek the hidden money. He woos the confused widow Willa (Shelley Winters) into marriage and charms the young daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), but the son John (Billy Chapin)- who knows where the money is- isn't fooled. Soon enough Powell's got murder on the mind, and only John sees through him.

With its haunting score, deliberate pacing, and long string of indelible imagery, The Night of the Hunter is an expressionistic surprise that delights the eyes as it chills the mind. Mitchum is cool and bombastic as the unstoppable Harry Powell, flashing his LOVE/HATE finger tattoos and bellowing out hymns as he hunts down his desires. The children are surprisingly resourceful and very well portrayed by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. The best character is easily Rachel Cooper, though, an older woman played by Lillian Gish who shelters various orphans she finds (it is the Depression, after all). She's a badass Christian who doesn't take shit from ANYBODY goddamn. It's awesome.

The opening and closing monologues are pretty cheesy, which unfortunately detracts slightly from the overall dark, gripping atmosphere of the film. It's a minor complaint, though. For most of the running time, I was totally hooked by the softly lit visuals, incredible use of shadows, and very strong performances. The story is a type that doesn't easily let on just how far it can go, allowing an intensity and terror to sink in gradually as it builds. It is a strange and hard-to-categorize film, incorporating elements of noir, romance, mystery, and morality tales. I'm disappointed that first-time director (more known as an actor) Charles Laughton hasn't made any more films, because this one is so awesome.


Pair This Movie With: It might seem weird but my first association is Sin City, possibly because of the murderous bishop and stark black and white graphics.


  1. You really can't overstate how great TNOTH is. It's just one of those near-perfect masterpieces that breaks every rule, invents some new ones, and goes places no other movie has ever dared to go.

    I especially love its magpie-like grabs from horror, fairy tales, film noir, surrealist dream narratives, etc. Just incredible.

    (My favorite images from it:

  2. I actually think it's one of the greatest films of all time. Would rate 4/4 or 5/5 for me. I find it to be a dark fairy tale of sorts, as often it's the child's point of view. But, it also, if we want it to be, is one of the greatest films noirs, albeit a departure from the norm. Incredible imagery, all-time great villain. Laughton didn't make any more because this one flopped with audiences and critics.

  3. This one really grows on you with time. If you're giving it 4.5/5 now, I suspect you'll be up to 5/5 within a year.

    I use that image of Harry Powell extending the hand of L-O-V-E as my avatar at, where I post as "Rev. Powell." So, you might say I'm a fan.

  4. When I think of "most evil sinister villains" in film, Mitchum's entry here deserves votes.

  5. When I think of "most evil sinister villains" in film, Mitchum's entry here deserves votes.

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