Shut-In Cinema: The Night of the Hunter

Once in a while we get something so wonderful, but it takes people a while to come around to it. That’s what happened to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, a wonderful little tale about a crooked preacher-man chasing down a couple of children because he thinks they’ve got a hidden stash of cash. It’s a really gorgeous-looking, fun, and dark little movie that might be one of the more fascinating entries in the Criterion Collection. I snagged it at a sale a few years ago, immediately became enamored with it, and I’m happy to say it’s now streaming for all to see.

The movie tells the story of Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a serial killer masquerading as a preacher that travels up and down the river marrying and murdering women for their money. He justifies this in his head as God’s will, constantly getting caught and escaping to kill again. When he gets thrown in the Moundsville Penitentiary he’s set up as a roommate with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man sentenced for murdering two people during a bank robbery. Despite his incarceration, Harper managed to pull off the heist and stashed the cash in his son’s teddy bear. After Ben’s execution, Powell is eventually released and tracks down the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), a vulnerable woman who is raising her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) alone. He charms not only her, but the entire town, and begins his search for the ten thousand dollars left behind by Ben Harper.

The whole film is a nightmare cacophony of contrasting ideals, with the Reverend Powell representing all of them at any time. The mental instability of a man who charms and slaughters women for their cash while believing himself God’s messenger, the wrestling of love and hatred he believes lives inside of him, is the crux of the film. Powell displays this constantly with the tattoos he has on his knuckles; one reads “love,” and the other “hate.” He uses his fingers to represent the wrestling between them that a person’s soul constantly goes through, but fails to recognize that he’s chosen a side. The children have also chosen a side, love of each other and their family pushing them onward to escape the situation they’ve found themselves in. The whole thing is very complicated in its simplicity, selling an easy message wrapped in an entertaining package.

Laughton didn’t get a lot of positive recognition for directing this one, and it wound up being his only effort behind the camera. It’s a shame, too, because he’s pulled off some really beautiful imagery and tone here. The shots feel like German Expressionism, hearkening back to things like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. Laughton himself described the film as a “nightmarish Mother Goose story.” The Legion of Decency (in all of their worthless glory) decided that it degraded the institution of marriage and said that any Christian should be offended by it, which certainly didn’t help with general audiences. They missed the point, as they mostly do, and instead caused a wonderful little film a lot of harm. The film has been looked back on more fondly in the last twenty years or so, finding an audience and even becoming a classic. Caheirs du Cinema, an influential film magazine, has even rated it as the second best film ever made behind Citizen Kane

No matter the trendy opinion on it, I know this one has passed a lot of people by. That’s a shame, and an issue I urge you to correct as The Night of the Hunter is a fun, twisted, entertaining look at love and hate. It’s beautiful, engaging, and I swear there’s this wild underwater shot that’ll blow your damn mind.

The Night of the Hunter is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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