Psychopathic preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) shared a cell with a condemned killer during his time in jail, who tells him about a large amount of money he stashed away before being caught. When Powell is released he tracks down his cell mates’ family and marries the widow, taking the two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) as his own as well. Once inside the family, Harry sets about finding the money through any means necessary and when his new wife gets in the way there is only one course of action – death. But the two children escape his clutches and go on the run, only for their psycho stepfather to be close behind them.
The Night Of The Hunter is now regarded as a classic of cinema, but upon release in 1955 it was cruelly shot down by critics and ostracized by film goers. It was Charles Laughton’s only directorial film and because of the hatred he received he reverted back to acting. Watching the film today shows how ahead of its time it was, it’s a brutal and tough attitude of a film that grasped us by the throat and never let us go.
Laughton wanted evil to come through every scene and he accomplished that and then some. He only respected Mitchum – and would shout at the kids in order to make them feel the necessary reaction required onset. Also his passion for German expressionism is shown in the movie as he films it with rigid, sharp angles against light and dark moments to contrast the emotions of those main characters. The iconic scene where Powell is stood underneath a streetlight and the rest of the shot is dark minimal shows as one of the most eerie, ever committed to celluloid.
Laughton’s direction is among the best ever as he gets Mitchum to show more hatred than his turn in Cape Fear years later – both films play on the same tension filled dilemma issue. Mitchum’s slow descent into killer is only clear for us to see, as he is the cleanest of clean cut to all those around him except for the two children who he treats with utter contempt from the time he sets foot in the house. Those moments between Powell and John & Pearl are horrible to watch, yet need to be seen as they are the scenes that push this film over into a fear induced 92 minutes.
Billy Chapin’s John pushes all the attitude given to him by uncaring adults into making sure that Powell can never harm his sister, the game of cat and mouse between those two shifts many times throughout the film, always keeping us guessing as to what we may see as the eventual outcome. Sally Jane Bruce, who plays Pearl, is delightfully playful the entire time and due to her age and excuses from her brother see’s this more as a game than a real life situation. It’s only when Powell tries to take her raggy doll from her hands that she becomes emotionally raw. The treatment of the two children in the film is so far removed from present day, but in The Night Of The Hunter it serves the purpose to show how detached people were from their own kids. The only adult that truly cares for the kids is Lillian Gish’s Rachel Cooper, who has a remarkable scene towards the end that had us punching the air with delight. This is one tough old lady that takes no BS from anyone, she is the Omar Little of her era.
The Night Of The Hunter is an absolute stunning piece of film making, from the stiff and tough directing which extended to the main actors within the film. Mitchum will forever invoke your dreams after seeing this film, it’s a role that most would kill to play, and he is the master of hatred. It’s a hugely disturbing work of horror art.