The Night of the Hunter

April 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm (Uncategorized)

I watched The Night of the Hunter again a few days back for the first time in over  two decades. It made a powerful impression on me then; an impression that has not been dimminished by time. (I’ll bet it impressed Nick Cave too, because his old testiment southern gothic bit is very familar)

The Night of the Hunter is interesting in many ways beyond the story. It was Charles Laughton’s only turn as director. It was Lillian Gish’s last starring role, and it was arguably Robert Mitchum’s greatest role. (In Cape Fear, Mitchum essentially updates Hunter’s Harry Powell  as Max Cady) Yet despite its status as a classic, back in 1955, the film was a failure, both commerically and critically.

The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum as a vicious woman-hater named Harry Powell (based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers) who learns of  $10,000 from a robbery committed by condemned cell mate Ben Harper (a young Peter Graves), and makes it his mission to claim it. Powell also plays a fundementalist preacher (and uses it to justify his beliefs) working the tattoos of love and hate across the knuckles of his hand (sound familiar Clash fans?) into a Bible story. Mitchum’s portrayal as the alternately charming, then murderous preacher is mesmorizing.

Haunting beautiful and terrifying images litter the film, almost casual in their inclusion: Shelley Winters murdered, sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting in the current; Powell’s lurching pursuit of the children in a basement brings to mind old monster movies; the peace of the river sharply contrasted with the horror of Powell and just out of reach home and safety; even the lynch mob which coems for Powell recalls the scene at the end of Frankenstein. The black and white of the film casting odd shadows from strange angles.

There’s a dualism that runs through the film, of left hand hate and right hand love. Of religion as sweetness and salvation (Rachel as New Testiment) and as violence and vengance (Powell as the Old). And there’s the children. They abide, as Rachel notes, but we all know the most successful childhood stories are the ones that recall the real fear of being a child and not being beleived by the gownups (go and re-read some of Neil Gaiman’s work).

The Night of the Hunter reminds us why we love movies.

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