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Night of the Hunter, The (1955)


Is EVERYTHING about this movie perfect? Just look at that poster.
Just look at that poster. Is EVERYTHING about this movie perfect?

Genre: Noir Thriller

Starring: Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear (1962) • Angel Face),  Shelley Winters (LolitaAlfie)

Directed By: Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort (Starred in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)Spartacus)

Overview: A false prophet by the name of Harry Powell comes to town looking for his usual prey of money-doling believers. He discovers a perfect opportunity in the soon-to-be widow of Ben Harper, a man who hid away $10,000, leaving the secret of where it lies with his children.

“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

The Night of the Hunter is an intense Thriller filled with twists, a brooding Noir filled with stark imagery, and a glorious Classic filled with memorable moments. It minces no words about the malignant character of the man we’re introduced to, someone false in the most biblical of proportions.

Although Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in probably his most tremendous role) is transparent madness and evil personified, the story takes us in several wonderful winding directions before those end credits roll. Also, the now-definitely-on-my-radar Stanley Cortez - cinematographer and D.O.P. for other 1001 films Secret Beyond the Door..., The Magnificent Ambersons, and Shock Corridor - does an exceptional job of creating a distinct mood. He and Laughton build scenes that could have been blatantly expository, but instead they honour and help define the look of Noir. Aside from the obvious use of bold Expressionist shadow-play the Noir genre is known for, impressive visuals include turning a bedroom into a condemning chapel, haunting underwater shots, and a kindly old lady’s haloed silhouette as she rocks in her chair, shotgun in hand. Most notable is the thematic use of Harry Powell’s hands, tattooed with HATE on his left fist and LOVE on the right. These hands play an integral visual element throughout The Night of the Hunter, beautifully helping to define Harry’s two-faces: his manipulative streak and his streak of fury. But I get ahead of myself…

And sometimes they ain't buyin what he's preachin'
And sometimes they ain't buyin what he's preachin'

We open with a bold warning of ‘The False Prophet’ and meet Harry Powell, a preacher driving down a country road. Harry preaches the sword of God, preaches the more puritanical side of things, preaches that a woman ought not be carnal. He praises the Lord for the abundance of widows and their money, hinting that the Lord also didn’t mind the killings along the way. The hints fade in a scene where he watches a woman dance before him in a seedy hall filled with ogling men. He’s compelled, itching to kill her. He pleads, wild-eyed, reasoning with the Lord, “There's too many of them. I can't kill the world.” When he’s put in jail for 30 days, he meets Ben Harper. Ben is sentenced to hang for murder and the theft of $10,000. Ben confides in Harry that the money is hidden away, but takes the secret of its location to the gallows. Harry praises the Lord once again for the opportunity he’s been given, and once free, beelines it to the Harper homestead, preaching to the town and wooing the recently-widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters in the first role I’ve enjoyed seeing her play). His plan is to marry Willa and learn the location of the hidden cash from the children. 

Ben Harper: What religion do you profess, preacher?
Rev. Harry Powell: The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.

Harry Powell is a magnificent character to follow. Those lines above made me realize that The Night of the Hunter was a masterpiece I’d be sure to get engrossed in. Mitchum delivers that retort with contained rage and zealous conviction. In but a moment, his purpose is made singular, and beneath all his pious praises a murderous howling madness shines. The writing in The Night of the Hunter is so perfect that in a thin line of dialogue we understand so much subtext that Harry quickly becomes a terrifying soul. His implied past is one of the main reasons that Harry Powell is now in my Top 10 Villains of cinema history.

I regretted not seeing more of James Gleason in the role of Birdie Steptoe, a comical, wise, and raging alcoholic uncle to the children. My only real issue with The Night of the Hunter was the oft-reprehensible acting talent of 11-year old Billy Chapin in the integral role of John Harper. I’ve read how Charles Laughton disliked children so much that he let Mitchum direct the kids in several scenes, and Billy is obviously the weakest part of the film. Thankfully Sally Jane Bruce, playing his younger sister Pearl, pulls of some miraculous scenes to help carry him.

Even Children get Noired!
Even Children get Noired!

There’s so much more to The Night of the Hunter than its characters. The script frequently sings wisdom. The scene that coincides with Ben Harper’s hanging displays the naïve cruelty of children perfectly. Another scene jokes about the conjugal bed:

Icey Spoon: When you've been married to a man for forty years you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning.

Between the rich tapestry created in themes of religious imagery, of pure villainy and of innocence lost, The Night of the Hunter has become one of my favorite Noirs and one I’m sure to revisit several times. Unfortunately, the film flopped in theaters and Laughton vowed never to direct again. I wonder what legacy he’d have left if he’d known how well-received his films would be in today's modern age.

Yes, it's that awesome.
Yes, it's that awesome.

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 10 Script: 9 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 88% (Get It In Your Sights)

Currently #170  on IMDb’s Top 250, and #10 on their Top 25 Films noir, I wholeheartedly agree this is one of the best films of its genre, and needs more attention by the likes of you, dear reader.

Wait, I lied. I have one last issue with The Night of the Hunter, and it’s that I’ll never be able to see it again for the first time.

| | | | |

Wow, do we disagree on this film's weakest link. If I could change one thing in this film, it would be Pearl, who I find jarring and painful throughout. 

 This one is all about the preacher, though, and Mitchum was never better. 

NEVER better? Talk about having fun proving that one right or wrong :D

I just love this one.  I think I had the exact same reaction as you the first time I saw it.  It's so exciting.  It's the sort of movie that gets me excited about movies.


I saw this in the theater once.  It was fantastic.

Don't forget the awesomeness that is Lillian Gish.  She sees evil and she fights it with a shotgun. 

Wow...i'm a little surpised that you hadn't seen this until now.

Anyways...welcome aboard!!!!!! I've likely  seen NOTH 10 times - easily - and it is always as enjoyable as the first.

One little thing that I would tend to not agree with you on - To me, this isn't sa noir, despite the shadowy cinematography.  i would classify it as a horror movie.

Noir usually dealt (Thematically, at least) with sin and redemption. Someone does something that they sould have know not to do, and their world falls apart because of it. NOTH is more a straight-forward horror plot (Children in peril)

I could just go on and on about the great images here - The bills blowing the   money around Mitchums feet, the way his shadow appears on the childrens wall, the bottom of the lake, the strange and beautiful song the little girl sings as they are escaping in the boat.

See, you got me started now.   Anyways, I love the movie, OK?

A recomendation of something in the same vein that you might like is "The Red House" with Edward g robinson.

Thoroughly enjoyed this and to think...I never would have seen it if you hadn't reviewed it. :)

Completely agree that the cinematography was stunning.

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