Film Review: The Night of the Hunter

Posted: May 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Night of the Hunter
1955
directed by Charles Laughton

Yesterday, I had a hard time deciding on a film to review and had a lot to do, so I once again disrupted this blog’s routine that I was trying to establish. I regret that, and yet I don’t. Today, the day Family Radio poobah Harold Camping has decided shall be the date of the Rapture inspired me. This is the perfect day to talk about wolves in sheep’s clothing and the word used to malignant effect, to intimidate, to rob and to exploit. When I looked around at all this material about The Rapture, I thought of Night of the Hunter, one of the finest films about both the frightful and the redemptive power of faith.

Night of the Hunter, based on a novel by Davis Grubb and directed by actor Charles Laughton, is the story of two children, John and Pearl, whose father, Ben Harper has stolen some money. Harper, played with great compassion and gravitas by Peter Graves, who committed murder stole this money because he never wanted to see children poor and wanting again. It’s the depression, resources are scant and the system protects nobody. He is caught by the police and sentenced to death, but not before leaving it with his son with the instruction to protect his sister and let nobody know about it. In prison, he meets Reverend Harry Powell, played with true menace by Robert Mitchum. Powell is one of the great villains of the cinema, a psychopath disguised as a preacher, believing himself to be in contact with God, who has granted him permission to commit any crime he likes in the name of faith. When asked by Graves what religion he preaches, Powell replies “the religion that the almighty and me have worked out betwixt ourselves”. It is the religion of Fred Phelps, Harold Camping, the Son of Sam and Catholic priests who feel their calling grants them permission to molest children.

Without their father, the mother of the family, played by Shelley Winters is struggling.The boy spends his time taking care of his sister and hanging out with a loveable but imperfect old fisherman. When Powell hears about the money and escapes from jail and comes into the naive and innocent riverside town where this naive and innocent family resides, a perfect storm of sorts occurs. The townsfolk take to Powell, as does the mother of the family, who marries him. He terrorizes her by withholding affection making her feel ashamed of her sexuality, then murders her and threatens the children to try and find where the money is concealed.

This is when the film really begins, the children, left alone, flee from Powell onto the river. The river is dark, malignant, but still a part of nature. They have left civilization behind and in a biblical twist, they are alone in the wilderness and pursued, with only a God that you cannot help but distrust to protect them from Harry Powell, who rides along the river, unwavering, never sleeping, a relentless sentinel of evil and personification of death. Mitchum’s body language and his ominous cry of “CHIL-DREN!” and eerie singing of hymns alone make this movie a standout. The shots of the children escaping onto the river make it beautiful and poetic, but the fate of the children makes this movie perfect, peerless as an allegory of good and evil and what faith can do.

Rachel Cooper, portrayed by Lilian Gish, lives on the river and takes in stray children. Her performance radiates light and joy and hers is a god of goodness and virtue, one that she chooses to serve instead of forcing him to serve her. She takes in and protects John and Pearl, not just against nature and the financial ravages of the depression, but against Powell who she stands up to in a battle of wills that spans on a long, expressionistic night.

Night of the Hunter is a film that uses chiaroscuro techniques in both tone and look to convey a complicated world where we can still see the distinctions between light and dark. One of the things I have tried to do in my fiction and that I have always liked about Bizarro fiction is that it serves its themes, ideas and tone instead of any notions of genre. Night of the Hunter is perfect for Bizarro fans in this respect and for horror fans. It has elements of Expressionism, Noir, Horror, Melodrama and religious allegory all blended to create a film that can only be called unique, a film that is a genre in itself. On this day and in this age when faith is used to oppress, confuse and exploit, this is an important film to see, one that tells us that no matter what we believe, it is important to pursue our higher impulses instead of to use it to excuse our behavior. Faith is meant to make us interact better with the world around us, not to do it harm. See this film. 10/10

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