Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter


Charles Laughton
James Agee (Novel: Davis Grubb)
93 min.
Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Gloria Castillo
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum as a dangerous man posing as a preacher as he tries to get close to the wife of an incarcerated bank robber hanged for killing two during his robbery. The money was never recovered and Mitchum’s Harry Powell wants it. The problem is he must retrieve the information from those who know, the thief’s two young children John and Pearl, and they aren’t about to reveal their dead father’s last secret, which he shared with them.

When the film is working to set atmosphere, it is staggeringly brilliant. Unfortunately, not everything in the film is. Outside of Mitchum’s intense and terrifying performance, only Lillian Gish really gives the audience a believable character, steadfastly sitting in her rocking chair attempting to protect the children. Shelley Winters, as the mother is grating, giving a screechy overbearing performance. Evelyn Varden as the nosy general store operator is equally irritating, but perhaps presented as such to make the audience question her intelligence and her wisdom.

But the film belongs only to Mitchum. Harry Powell is an unrepentantly evil man stalking about the countryside righteously damning all those who stand in his way. His terrifying religious anthem “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” is one of the most chilling vocal performances I can remember on film. Used to tremendously amazing effect as the children slowly drift down river trying to evade his menacing grasp, the song becomes a double edged sword of meaning, evinced when Gish sings it in harmony with and in counter-effect to Mitchum’s own in one of the film’s most well developed atmospheric scenes. Director Charles Laughton unfortunately never made another film. He showed a level of skill which most actors-turned-directors only wish they possessed. His hand is so assured and swift that even Winters and Varden can’t spoil the film.

When I first sat down to write this review, I was sure the daytime scenes didn’t quite fit the tone of the film, but looking back at them I believe that was the intention. In the daylight, evil still roams freely, but does so in disguise for in order for it to blend in with normality, it must apply subterfuge and guile to pursue its aims. Even though the audience knows Powell’s purpose coming to this little community, he is met with friendship and civility by the rest of the folk in the town. And this is necessary for him to get close to and manipulate the Harper family and hopefully to get his hands on the money. Yet, when night falls, evil can creep in and destroy the lives of those it touches. So when the tone shifts from day to night, there’s an obvious change in style and I know believe it was not only purposeful but perfectly executed.
Review Written
September 20, 2010

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