Title: The Night of the Hunter
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Charles Laughton
Writer: James Agee
based on the novel of Davis Grubb
Music: Walter Schumann
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Sally Jane Bruce
Acting giant Charles Laughton’s sole directorial motion picture, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is another masterpiece failed to find its audience at its initial release, but through time, this sublimely composed black-and-white thriller has revive its reputation as a must-see for cinephiles.
The story takes place in America’s post-Depression era, Harry Powell (Mitchum), a self-anointed preacher who charms Protestant believers with L-O-V-E tattooed in his left hand and H-A-T-E in his right hand, but in fact, he is a serial killer, and very dexterous with switchblade, whose latest targets are a young boy John Harper (Chapin) and his litter sister Pearl (Jane Bruce), who live with their recently-widowed mother Willa (Winters). Harry eyes for the money hidden by John and Pearl’s father before being captured and executed for bank robbery, and only John and Pearl know its whereabouts.
Harry is a pure evil, he tricks a beleaguered Willa into marrying him, but humiliates her on their wedding night for indecency, and brainwashes her with the illusion that she is a sinful person needs redemption. Meanwhile he sweet-talks the credulous Pearl and tries to get the information from her but John is vigilant enough to not let her slip their secret. Soon Willa is mercilessly dispatched by Harry (the final shots of her under the water are morbidly aesthetic, Winters magnificently grubs for an under-appreciated and undemanding character), home is not a safe place for the two youngsters. They have a narrow escape on a skiff after Harry knows where is the money. Downstream, they eventually are accepted by an elder woman Rachel Cooper (Gish), who takes care of abandoned children. Rachel is a tough harridan with a golden heart, and when Harry finally materialises on her doorstep, she is nimble-witted enough to see through his pretentious carapace and not hesitate to aim her shotgun at him if he shows any motion to hurt the kids.
As a heart-stopping thriller, the tension has been tangibly hanging over audience’s head as soon as Harry enters the life of Jack and Pearl, in their home turf, no one, not even their mother, can protect them from the fanatical religious fiend, the film grimly pits two children against an adult villain. Finally in the third act justice will prevail. admirably, Laughton introduces Rachel, a seemingly feeble woman, a saintly protector, a true sermoniser of the gospel, comes to their rescue, and heroically gains the upper hand over the vicious menace. The silent era icon Gish shines vigorously for her unsung tour-de-force.
A poignant and unforeseeable moment when Jack is shocked to see Harry being overcome by the police, which is a replay of the scene from his own father, he throws the money to him, and says that he can have it. Subconsciously, he takes Harry as a father figure, and the wanting presence of a father, is a big blow for a child in those desperate days. Also, the lynch mob near the end, is mordantly the same diehard followers (lead by Evelyn Varden’s superbly irksome busybody Icey Spoon).
Robert Mitchum is such an outstanding screen villain under Laughton’s supervision, although his destiny is doomed to be outwitted by two little ones, his overpowering presence envelops the film with a deadly threat of what an evil soul can ever possibly produce, unreservedly chilling to watch.
Another stunning achievement is its mesmerizing cinematography, especially those extremely theatrical shots in the sound-stage, with meticulous compositions, innovative exploitation of light and chiaroscuro, Laughton is such a savant in the director chair, what a pity his dabbling behind the camera had to end abruptly after the negative responses of this film, which also partially, accredits the belated fame THE NIGHT OF THE HUNER has garnered worldwide in the niche of being “one-and-the-only”.