Film Review: The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum is sublime as preacher Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The film is genuinely unnerving, and one of the best thrillers of the 1950s.

During a short stint in prison, psychotic Harry Powell befriends Ben Harper, a bank robber, hoping to find out where he has stashed several thousand dollars. Unsuccessful in his attempts, Powell decides to court Harper’s widow in order to obtain the money. Only Harper’s young children stand between Powell and the fortune…

The Night of the Hunter is an incredibly unsettling film. Charles Laughton generates a sinister air that pervades almost the entire movie. While much of this derives from Mitchum’s performance; the cinematography, lighting and sound also feed into the tension.

The Night of the Hunter is ripe with symbolism. Frequent cuts are made to wildlife in the film, from foxes prowling to an owl attacking a rabbit. These appear to represent events in the film in two ways. Firstly, Powell is the hunter stalking his prey, much like some of the animals. Moreover, the shots of animals can be likened to Powell’s personality; he is brutal and relenting, much like nature itself.

Elsewhere, the lighting is very symbolic of the film’s themes. As Willa is lying in bed, a bright light frames her. As well as suggesting her impending demise, this serves to illustrate her innocence, compared with the evil preacher. Powell first appears to the children as a looming dark shadow in their bedroom. This is highly emblematic of the darkness he will bring to their young lives.

Stanley Cortez’s cinematography is excellent. The Night of the Hunter makes the most of its settings, most of which are made nightmarish by events. Several of the film’s images are very striking, including the body at the bottom of the river, and the spider’s web which overlays the image of the children on the river (another example of the stark symbolism in Laughton’s picture).

The use of sound is also effective, especially Powell’s singing, which is absolutely haunting. There is a nice juxtaposition between his singing of a religious song with Rachel Cooper joining in. Both Powell and Cooper are religious, but their faith is materialised in completely different ways. The Night of the Hunter is not about religion, however.  It functions at a more primal level; the film is concerned with innocence and evil.

As Powell, Robert Mitchum is simply one of the most frightening villains in cinema history. There are elements of humour in his performance, and these add to the menace of his character. Lillian Gish shows gumption as Rachel, while Shelley Winters is appropriately passive as Willa. Both Billy Chaplin and Sally Jane Bruce give credible performances as John and Pearl, despite their young age.

The Night of the Hunter is an excellent film, let down only by the overly sentimental ending. This can be forgiven, nevertheless, as the film is truly remarkable up to this point.

The Night of the Hunter was shown at the British Film Institute as part of their Members Select screenings. It was introduced by curator Nigel Algar, and preceded by a short documentary on the making of the film.

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