In my defense this review was written two days ago and my computer decided it didn’t want to look for pictures and kept crashing. Profuse apologies! The Night of the Hunter was on the last Reader Request poll and if the results were anything to go off of, people love Robert Mitchum (the winner of that poll was the original Cape Fear which can be read here). Night of the Hunter is one of my FAVORITE films and one of the first movies I ever bought specifically on Criterion DVD which I highly recommend. The movie is a dark, haunting thriller filled with amazing characters, and one of the scariest performances given by Robert Mitchum A deceitful preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) marries the meek and mild widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) when he discovers her deceased husband robbed a bank and hid the money. What Harry doesn’t know is that the only ones who know where the money is hid are Willa’s two children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce). As Harry tries to get the children to tell him where the money is, the brother and sister must run to escape him.
I do love Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear but I saw Night of the Hunter first and fell in love with how Mitchum portrays evil. To me, this is his most nefarious role. While Cady was an animal, Mitchum plays Harry Powell as more calculating and manipulative. The film opens with the benevolent Rachel (silent film star Lillian Gish) telling her wards about “the sheep amidst the wolves” and “false prophets” of which Powell is one. Powell is manipulative, easily able to change his demeanor to suit those he’s trying to swindle. Obviously an upstanding, good-looking preacher, can easily seduce vulnerable widows. The way the film introduces Mitchum in silhouette enhances his role as the dark shadow that changes the children. Not to mention there’s more Mitchum singing!
As many would expect, there’s competition between Harry and the young John, the only one who knows where the money is hid. John becomes the man of the house forced to carry the burden that is the money after his father (played by a young Peter Graves!) trusts him with the secret. Not only does John know Harry’s true intentions, but he also feels animosity at a new man taking over the house. The way Harry looks at John throughout the film is frightening but you can also tell he’s doing it to say who the real man of the house is. As the movie progresses Powell becomes more antagonistic towards John but he also expertly toys with him. He gloats to John when he reveals he’s marrying Willa and when John tells Harry he’ll tell his mother about Powell’s true intentions Powell casually says “It’s your word against mine.” Mitchum is just so casual about stomping on some poor kid’s heart and flat-out saying “I’m the man and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The scenes I love the most are the ones with Powell and Pearl. I mentioned before Powell’s ability to change his demeanor with the person and with little Pearl he’s all sweetness and light. He’s nice to her and because Pearl is so young she’s comfortable calling him “Daddy Powell.” Their scenes are mixed with fear and sweetness and when Pearl’s teasing turns irritating, Powell has not trouble turning on her. It works especially in the scene where Powell has a full spread of food out in front of the children, refusing them any until they tell. Pearl, of course easily swayed, starts to tell but is conflicted. I don’t really care for Sally Jane Bruce’s acting (she’s the princess of stating the obvious), it’s not thing to write home about, but her scenes with Mitchum are some of the most tense of the film as his abuse is reliant on words instead of actions.
The movie also starkly looks at the role society plays in elevating these exalted types of men. One of the more annoying characters, Willa’s friend Icey (Evelyn Varden) forces Willa to marry Harry because he’s supposedly a good man, the man’s a preacher right? Yet at the end she’s the one leading the lynch mob when Harry’s crimes are revealed. Only Rachel is able to see past Powell’s visage and see the wolf within. Speaking of Icey, ugh her character just annoys me with her rudeness. I mean the woman forces Willa to marry Powell and while the children are standing right in front of her she delivers this gem: “A woman’s a fool to marry for that. That’s somethin’ for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream.” She’s pretty much commenting in front of Willa’s children that Willa married for sex when she shouldn’t have. Of course this is mirrored later when Willa presents herself to Powell, ready for sex and he starts screaming at her “you thought I’d paw at you in that abominable way.” Powell controls Willa even with the lack of sex. Seems director Charles Laughton had some demons to exorcise about hypocrites and sex.
Shelley Winters gives a strong performance in this movie which I always find interesting as the first Shelley Winters film I saw was A Patch of Blue where she is nothing but horrible to a poor blind girl. Her turn as Willa shows Winters’ ability to act as she’s a wholly different person in this film. Her Willa is fragile, as mentioned by John’s father, she’s just not strong enough to stay on her own or be trusted with the knowledge of the money. When Powell starts to get into her head she’s the first to “repent” about her wicked ways and need for possessions when that’s not the case. She’s quiet, constantly scared, and appears constantly out-of-place like she doesn’t belong which obviously draws Powell to her closer. The image of her in the car is the most iconic of the film.
The element of religion is focused on in an interesting way. I generally shy away from films that thrust a religious perspective on me but Night of the Hunter does it in a skillful way. Harry is introduced as this preacher commenting on the battle between love and hate (a scene that Spike Lee stole for Do the Right Thing). Harry also mentions that the Bible itself is “full of killings” which leads the audience to question the role of violence in the society, in religion, and what it says about people. The film revolves around two small children hunted down by a corrupt adult, and there’s an earlier scene of a group of children discovering a dead body, so it also seems to be stating that children are the witnesses of the evil of adults and are the ones forced to change it. Here’s the scene of Harry Powell and the battle between love and hate
This was actor Charles Laughton’s only film as a director. You might remember him from my review of Witness for the Prosecution. The movie was such a total bomb it put Laughton off of directing again and that’s a shame as the movie has been exalted as a classic. And here’s some food for thought. Originally Laughton wanted Gary Cooper to be Harry Powell…..ponder that.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.