Movie Morsel: The Night of the Hunter
Up until a few months ago, my experience with the film noir genre was minimal. On a Facebook page dedicated to classic film, I found a thread discussing film noir and saw how passionate many of the writers were about it. I decided to give it a try. What an amazing world of film I had been missing. For my maiden voyage into film noir, I decided to watch The Night of the Hunter. Truth be told, I had been doing research on a stage musical based on the film, so I was killing two birds with one stone. The film was stunning, chilling even, in ways I had never experienced. Set in West Virginia during the 1930s, a serial killer named Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is arrested for driving a stolen car and is sent to jail. There, he encounters Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man who killed two people during a bank robbery and who is set to be executed. Ben tells him that he hid the stolen money from the bank robbery somewhere on his land and that only his son knows where it is hidden. Ben is executed and Powell is released. The “Reverend” makes his way to the home where Ben’s widow Willa (Shelly Winters) lives with her two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). He charms his way into Willa’s good graces, and soon convinces her to marry him. Once inside the house, he begins to terrorize the children to find out where the money is hidden. When he kills their mother, the two kids make a bold escape and are pursued by Reverend Powell who doggedly taunts them with his eerie whistling. John and Pearl end up at the home Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes in orphaned and abandoned children. Will the kids survive under her protection or will Reverend Powell have his way? Night of the Hunter is a nail-biter to its final frame. Much of this can be credited to Charles Laughton’s deft and driven direction.
Mitchum and Gish both give memorable performances in the film. Cool and calculated, Mitchum is that wolf in sheep’s clothing we are warned against. Gish gives an understated performance of spunk and strength. The Night of the Hunter is one of those few instances where the child performers are not overly cloying and cute in their delivery. In fact, Billy Chapin makes John Harper into a believable kid and a terrific foil for Mitchum. The kid really holds his own. Winters has a short stay in the film, but she is always a welcome presence. She grasps and conveys the urgency of her characters, a brewing storm of anxiety under a stoic exterior of stone.
I am certainly glad I ventured into the world of film noir and The Night of the Hunter is now among my favorites of classic cinema. Since its viewing, I have added several other films of this genre to my watch list, reveling in how directors could use darkness, shadow and a menacing mood to drive a story with expressionism.
Fun Fact: The Night of the Hunter was not a financial success in its original release. It is the only film that Charles Laughton ever directed. Over time, the film eventually found the appreciation that it deserved and in 1992, it was preserved by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".