Kim Newman writes “[The Night of the Hunter is] like a fairytale told in its simplicity, and yet seethes with adult complications”. A perfect summary of the type of story this is. A recent film to bear a comparison to, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, whereby Paul Dano’s ‘Eli Sunday’ portrays a greedy, corrupt preacher who – though nowhere near as sinister – clearly has similar inner-conflicts and demons as Harry “Preacher” Powell, played by Robert Mitchum. The fact that this film, over 50 years ago, still influences cinema today, shows the timelessness and importance of the film.
Through a Childs Eyes
The set-up begins as little John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) witness their Father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), return home; money in one hand, gun in the other. John is sworn to hide the money he has stolen before Harper is arrested by the law men. In prison, he lets slip to his fellow cell-sharer Harry Powell of his crime and Harper is executed for his crime. John and Pearl do not know this, but they soon see something suspicious when Reverend Harry Powell arrives to their town and manages to woo their Mother. John never trusts him, and has no intention of revealing the location of the money to anyone – least of all “Preacher” Powell, who clearly shows his true intentions as he obsesses over this location … questioning John and Pearl time and time again…
The film begins as a biblical story is told to the five children: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them”. From the outset, you do not trust the people on screen – Ben Harper has an inner conflict as he is desperate for his children not to want through seeing the many children starve on the streets during the depression. Unfortunately, he turns to crime and gives his life hoping that his children do not struggle. But, by the same token that a criminal can have a good-heart, we also see a “man of the cloth” who is corrupted in every possible way – with every intention of corrupting those around him and betraying the trust bestowed upon him.
Akin to Paul Muni in Scarface, and the sinister whistling Muni has as he approaches his next victim, Mitchum equally sings a hymn in his southern-drawl titled “Leanin’ “, which Ma Cooper (Lillian Gish) soon corrects as she correctly sings the song “Lean on Jesus”. A subtle change that verbally shows the different intentions of each character – whilst Ma Cooper is a woman of faith, she believes that what she does is for the love of God. “Preacher” on the other hand
commits his crimes and actions for himself.
commits his crimes and actions for himself.
The One and Only
The Night of the Hunter is a staple of Film-Noir, but the director Charles Laughton only directed this single film in his entire career. Having worked with Hitchcock on The Paradine Case and Jamaica Inn, Laughton had clearly worked with the best.
The direction often shows stunning landscapes as characters walk across the horizon, creating defining silhouettes. Specifically Mitchum’s ‘Preacher’, whose trademark-silhouette horse, rides across the horizon, as he wears a flat-top hat. By the final act, when you see this appear, it is a deeply unsettling experience as you know how much this character is capable of.
The use of deep-focus is regularly used and shadow dominates the screen, often completely obscuring faces so that you can only hear their voices. A stunning sequence is shot to show a side-perspective of a single room (above). On one hand, it appears incredibly strange, but in the symmetrical and triangular shape alongside the lighting, you can see that Laughton is creating a church-like atmosphere – arranging the frame almost as a Renaissance triptych; “Preacher” Powell is in his element and is, effectively, in his church. Another shot of Powell, waiting to enter the house, reminds me of the iconic shot in The Exorcist as the priest prepares to enter the house. No doubt Freidkin watched many films portraying evil prior to making The Exorcist – and Mitchum’s “Preacher” is indeeed just that. Then we see the multiple uses of shadow drifting across walls, threatening the characters in the room harking back to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This film is clearly influenced by cinema that preceded it, but more importantly influenced much more cinema after it.
Little did I know that the film ends on Christmas Day as Ma Cooper tells us about chidren: “They abide and they endure”. In the final few scenes, we see John break and struggle under the responsibility his father has placed on him. We have a responsibility to look after these children and their future. On a sidenote, I also watched Inside Job last night – an award-winning documentary about the global recession …
One of my favorite films of all time Mitchum is force to be reckoned with. Enjoyed your review and now you have forced me to watch Night of the Hunter again.
Thanks ThreeGuys! Mitchum really is brilliant! Thanks for the comment!