Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review: Mitchum Makes "The Night of the Hunter" a Classic (Remembering Robert Mitchum)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 29 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Night of the Hunter (1955) – B&W
Running time: 93 minutes (1 hour, 33 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Charles Laughton
WRITER: James Agee (from the novel Davis Gubb)
PRODUCER: Paul Gregory
EDITOR: Robert Golden


Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, and Don Beddoe

The subject of this movie review is The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 American thriller starring the great actor, Robert Mitchum. The film is directed by Charles Laughton, who reportedly also wrote the film’s screenplay, although James Agee is the credited writer. The Night of the Hunter is based upon the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Gubb. The film follows a reverend-turned-serial killer who stalks two children to learn a secret he believes they know.

In this Depression-era tale, self-proclaimed preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), learns from his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a thief and double murdered condemned to hang from the gallows, that he hid $10,000 in stolen money, and only his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know where the loot is. When Powell gets out of prison, he charms Ben’s weak-minded widow, Willa (Shelly Winters), into marrying him. However, the children have made a pact never to reveal the whereabouts of the money, and the mature-beyond-his-years John stubbornly refuses to give into Powell’s threats of bodily harm lest they give up the money. As Powell stalks them, the children take up refuge with the indomitable Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an older woman who takes in abandoned and abused children, and so begins an inevitable test of wills between Harry and Rachel for the fate of the Harper children.

The Night of the Hunter is probably one of the scariest Film-Noir motion pictures you’ll ever see. Haunting, eerie, and dreamlike, its hold on the viewer is as relentless as the title character played superbly, with such gusto, and honest-to-God menace by Robert Mitchum. The wedding night scene in which Harry rebuffs Shelly Winters’ Willa Harper simply and definitively says that Mitchum’s Powell is a total asshole. Actually, it’s at that point Winters’ character really begins to register in this film; before that scene, Willa Harper was extraneous. In Mitchum’s scenes with the children, Powell’s demeanor and dishonest piety mark him as an evil shit. However, when he stalks the Harper kids across cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s otherworldly rural landscapes and its seemingly enchanted river, you know that Powell is an all-too-real human murder, even if he takes on a sort of supernatural aura.

In a sense the film is like a fairy tale, some Brothers Grimm tale that taps into primordial fears and bad dreams – young lambs that find that a ravenous wolf has replaced their parents and now stalks them for a prize. There are superb performances by the child actors. Billy Chapin ably becomes the little man that John Harper must become as he takes on the responsibility of both protecting his sister and his father’s legacy, symbolized by the money that Ben Harper stole specifically to make sure his children didn’t go homeless and hungry. It is with bitter irony that it is that same money is the reason Ben’s children end up homeless and hungry. Sally Jane Bruce mixes cuteness, a precocious confidence, and innocence into a unique mixture that allows her to face Harry Powell, to even sit on his lap on occasion.

Lillian Gish’s Rachel Cooper is God’s voice to as Mitchum’s Powell is the bad spirit; she is his exact opposite when it comes to viewing God. While Powell’s God is a hyper vengeful Old Testament deity who allows a madman to roam about killing his human servants, Gish’s Cooper believes in a God who sends children who will do great things into the world – children who will grow into Kings that will in turn save all God’s children.

Some people may be put off by the film’s theatrical style and staging and its religiosity, but that adds a layer of wonderful metaphors and symbols on director Charles Laughton’s otherwise gritty fable. Carefully and deliberately, he shaped The Night of the Hunter into a true classic in the film thrillers genre.

9 of 10

1992 National Film Preservation Board, USA: National Film Registry

Tuesday, February 7, 2006


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