Criterion Project #12: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

The Night of The Hunter

Year: 1955

Director: Charles Laughton

Leeeeeeaning….leeeeeeaning….safe and secure from all alaaaaarms.

The butter-voiced Robert Mitchum croons this soothing hymn like a wolf in shepherd’s visage in Charles Laughton’s storied solo directorial effort. A film that I considered amongst my very favorite after just one viewing. And even after many watches, it’s still an absolute wonder of filmmaking.

The plot synopsis from IMDB:

A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid the $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery.

Another example of a poorly written overview. It sums up about half the movie, but alas, perhaps it’s all for the better. You can’t fully summarize a great film in one sentence.

Directed by an actor (Laughton) and written by a journalist and film critic (James Agee) the film spins a gothic fairytale about love and hate. The lasting image of the film is sure to be the iconic visual of Harry Powell (Mitchum), with the letters L-O-V-E tattooed on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other hand, preaching the power of love as he slithers from widow to widow – a manipulative thief and murderer hiding behind a mask of religious righteousness. The living embodiment of hate.

**Spoilers beyond if you haven’t seen the film yet**

Initially, the words “love” and “hate” are tossed about as, well, words. Meaningless terms as part of some performative mumbo-jumbo concocted to fool gullible Christians who hang on every word Harry spews. As the film progresses, we find love and hate transition into an actual battle before our eyes.

The film reaches it’s emotional punctuation as the climax is about to wrap up and John pleads for the life of a man whose existence cursed his own. It’s what cements this film into a place beyond pretty visuals and suspenseful chases. Laughton needles religion and the hypocrites who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. Adults pretend to know the difference between love and hate, right and wrong, yet it’s children that innately understand the concepts. The film ends with a bible-thumping lynch mob marching through the streets to hang the lecherous Harry Powell while the children he tormented, the children of the woman he murdered, choose love. The coda hinges on an important choice – John, given the chance to enact forcible action on someone who nefariously altered his life, chooses not to be a part of hate. Instead they turn to the love of their new “mother”, Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish). And her parting words that children “abide” and “endure” are, well, enduring.

The themes of love and hate are no less explored in the visual style of the film. Trees, creatures, and homes scroll by in stark contrasts – from the white light of the moon gazing down on the rolling landscape, to the looming, black silhouette of evil strolling on the horizon. Once Harry Powell has shed his phony visage, he’s shown mostly in darkness and shadow, undoubtedly casting the blackest silhouette to ever grace the silver screen. For my buck, it’s the quintessential black-and-white film. (Honorable mention to The Third Man (1949) – coincidentally, another film with an evil Harry. Hmmm.)

Another one of its many strengths lies in Loughton’s ability to wring tension from any scene by placing children right in the path of evil. I’ve seen this movie multiple times and my heart always races when John and Pearl are in the cellar with Harry right before they split. Harry is never less than larger-than-life (until he has the unfortunate luck of meeting Ms. Rachel Powell), casting the blackest shadows and overpowering any room with a preacher’s bellow and a bull-shit story about good and evil. When he’s questioning Pearl about the money and he draws a switchblade, there is no doubt these children are in mortal danger. By that point you’re already invested in the safety of these kids. And once they go on the run there’re no turning back, for them or the audience. It’s incredibly affecting.

As I stated earlier, The Night of the Hunter staked a place in my very favorite films from the get-go. It may sound hyperbolic, but I believe this re-watch was just as eye-opening as the first time I saw it. John’s will and compassion struck me much harder this time – the bravery coupled with unshakable integrity is something, perhaps, only found in children. It’s both heartbreaking and redeeming at the same time – no easy feat. One of the greatest ever. Period.

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