It Came From the Cultosphere: The Eerie, Fairy-Tale Magic of ‘The Night of the Hunter’
There is no other movie like 'The Night of the Hunter.'
Released in 1955 to an apathetic audience, it remains the only film ever directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton. It stars ultra-cool Robert Mitchum in a role that is, by turns, terrifying, mesmerizing and downright goofy -- but only occasionally cool.
It revives the career of silent film legend Lillian Gish. It is, depending on which scene you happen to be watching, a film noir, a thriller, a Depression drama, a fairy tale, a dark comedy, a Biblical allegory and a kids' movie. It's also one of the greatest films ever made.
Based on a bestselling novel by West Virginian David Grubb, 'The Night of the Hunter' follows devious Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum in an amazing performance) as he learns of hidden loot from his cellmate in a Depression-era jail. When the cellmate is executed, Preacher quickly romances his widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), then sets his sights on her kids, when he realizes son John (Billy Chapin) knows where the money is hidden. And that's when the movie really starts to work its magic.
Despite the British pedigree of its director, 'The Night of the Hunter' is one of the most purely American movies ever made. The film beautifully evokes both the sunlit days and moonlit nights of its rural setting, creating a mood like nothing else in film history. Some scenes are broadly comic, like the shots of Preacher in a sleazy dance club, briefly losing control of his surprisingly phallic switchblade.
Others are stylized almost to the point of abstraction, like the night Preacher decides he doesn't really need Willa around after all. A few are horrific in the classic film sense, including Preacher's Frankenstein-like pursuit of the children. And then there's the scene that immediately follows that chase, when John and his sister Pearl, temporarily safe, float down a river as the animals, looming huge in the foreground, seem to watch over their journey ...
Yes, it's gloriously, wondrously fake, but that's the point. All those elements -- the otherworldly score, the striking visuals (courtesy of iconic cinematographer Stanley Cortez) and the eerie song lip-synched by young actress Sally Jane Bruce -- add up to one of the most spellbinding sequences in all of cinema. If you don't get a chill up your spine during those moments on the moonlit river, you might want to question how much you really love movies.
And from that point, the movie shifts gears, keeping Preacher as a terrifying, homicidal presence but adding a more-than-formidable foe in the form of, of all people, Lillian Gish. Laughton was deeply influenced by silent film director D.W. Griffith when making 'The Night of the Hunter,' and he cast Gish both for her powerful screen presence and for her connection to that long-ago era.
What's surprising is how believable her character, Rachel Cooper, is as a purely good force that can stand up to Preacher. Taking the children in along with the other kids under her care, Rachel is one of the few adults in the movie who can see through Preacher's smooth talk and glimpse the monster inside.
When he comes calling under the guise of innocently looking for "his" kids, Rachel sends him running. When he shows up later, after dark, she's waiting with a shotgun on the porch -- and the unexpected duet they sing as they face off is one of the highlights of the movie.
'The Night of the Hunter' is full of unforgettable moments, but they weren't enough to attract audiences in 1955. Its failure depressed Laughton, and he never directed again, and died seven years later. Thankfully, the film's reputation has grown in the years since, and it's now recognized as a truly unique achievement in American cinema.
Even better, the fine folks at Criterion have released it on Blu-ray, preserving not only the film's striking look but a bit of its production history as well, in the form of two and a half hours of footage of Laughton directing its cast.
If you love movies, you need to see this one. And if you love 'The Night of the Hunter,' you need to own that terrific Blu-ray.