Today’s entry is one that has been a long time coming for this blog, and one that I will relish in describing to you. “The Night of the Hunter“, directed by Academy Award-winning British actor Charles Laughton, is the story of two young children whose father is arrested after robbing a local bank in your typical “small-town” America of the 1930’s. The son, John (Billy Chaplin), eventually discovers the location of where the stolen money is hidden but soon after becomes the target of a traveling preacher with the words ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed on both of his knuckles As the preacher’s intentions become less than Christ-like John and his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) attempt to run away from home, only to be constantly chased by the wicked man of God.
As an example of pure American cinema from the 1950’s Hunter excels in all forms of cinematic storytelling. This achievement is made all the more impressive for the fact that it was Laughton’s directorial debut, having only worked as an actor in theater and the silver screen previously. The true star of the piece is in the performance of actor Robert Mitchum as the maliciously omnipresent Reverend Harry Powell. As his character is slowly introduced to us Laughton plays with the delicate balance of Powell’s deranged emotional spectrum, keeping many scenes in the film fraught with immense tension. Powell appears to us as an individual on the brink of snapping, seconds from descending into the maddening rage he keeps neatly tucked away behind his holy garb. Such an approach would be difficult for an actor to pull off convincingly, but with the casting of Mitchum in the role the reverend’s presence is truly terrifying.
Mitchum excels in convincing the slightly dimwitted inhabitants of the town of his good intentions, particularly in one sequence where he explains the reasoning behind his two slightly morbid tattoos. But it is only after the surface of Powell’s facade has been scratched by the children’s ever inquisitive demeanor, do we see the real monster for what he is, prompting some of most terrifying chase sequences shot on film. Hunter‘s narrative in itself is a simple yet undeniably strong story of morality and character, however the extra mile that the film’s crew undertook can be seen with Stanley Cortez’s cinematography. Hunter‘s landscapes, studio set-pieces and character close-ups are dazzlingly on screen. The perfect blending of light and shadow works wonderfully within the confines of each character’s visual presentation for us an audience. This attention to detail in the overall design of the sets and how they interact with the various light sources off camera is almost reminiscent of Orson Welles’ zeal with Citizen Kane in fact.
Upon release Night of the Hunter was a critical and commercial flop, forcing Laughton to tragically resist future attempts at helming the director’s chair. It is only through the prism of time that filmmakers and cinema academics have come to respect the powerhouse of craftsmanship that went into its production. The central performances of Chaplin and Mitchum are so well rendered cinematically you would be hard pressed not to become engrossed in it’s story. For me, Hunter was one of the most terrifying experiences I had gained in the course of years of film viewing. Not that its genre is one of horror intentionally, but Laughton’s skill as both a writer and director was one that made my concern for its endangered cast so great that I felt truly involved as an audience member. At the risk of sounding pompous and cynically complacent, the emotional connection I grew from watching Night of the Hunter is truly rare and I encourage anyone to endeavor to resist such feelings upon watching for the first time. You may be surprised!