THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Exceptional film

“The Night of the Hunter” is a masterpiece in its genre, a film worthy of the highest praise and awards.

Mariusz Czernic

5 May 2024

night of the hunter

Charles Laughton is a well-known British actor, an Oscar winner for his role in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), where he portrayed the progressive King of England from the Tudor dynasty. Laughton harbored directorial ambitions, which he fulfilled in the theater, and he often meddled in the work of film directors—”Jamaica Inn” (1939) was largely his film rather than Alfred Hitchcock‘s. When given the chance to direct his own film, he made the dark thriller “The Night of the Hunter,” in which, adopting a child’s perspective, he depicted the brutal world of adults and the destructive power of money. In the mid-1950s, with the rise of widescreen color films, Laughton’s monochrome work fell out of favor. It was only over time that it became clear that this film was exceptional and deserved as much attention as the works of true cinema masters.

The central character is a criminal who, to a naive community, appears as a good preacher espousing biblical morals of peace, love, and sin corrupting human minds. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Hays Code was strictly enforced, which prohibited, among other things, depicting clergy as negative or comical characters. This principle was violated in “The Night of the Hunter”—the preacher is a grotesque figure, simultaneously deceitful and wicked. Yet, this man neither preaches in a church nor administers sacraments—his clergy status is suggested only by biblical quotes put into his mouth by the screenwriter (James Agee, adapting Davis Grubb’s novel). He is more of an ordinary fanatic and egotist who, hiding behind the word of God, seeks to gain people’s trust to exploit them for his own ends.

Harry Powell, as this cleric is named, is distinguished by tattoos on his fingers that spell out “Love & Hate,” and on his back, where no one will look, are surely inscribed the true traits of his character: love of money and hatred of children. Concealed in a doll is the loot from a robbery, a sinful treasure around which the struggle revolves. The tension is heightened by the absence of a charismatic hero capable of stopping the psychopath’s actions. On the side of Good, there are two children, a limping fisherman, a kind-hearted old maid, and a naive widow. Evil is represented by a man with a Bible in his hand, who has on his side a large following of trusting, God-fearing parishioners.

night of the hunter

Unlike in “Cape Fear” (1962), Robert Mitchum does not have an equally formidable opponent as Gregory Peck’s character was in Thompson’s film. The film reveals how people’s attitudes towards religion have changed. Nowadays, if a man quoting the Bible approached a random person, he certainly wouldn’t be met with a friendly reception. In the past, however, priests were untouchable, their word was sacred, and nothing negative could be said about them. Laughton’s film also depicts an inappropriate attitude towards children, treating them disdainfully when they dare to oppose adults. And if a child begins to tell sensational stories, it’s understood that no one will believe them because children have vivid imaginations. Portraying events through the eyes of young protagonists turned this thriller into a fairy tale parable about vulnerable and innocent beings in conflict with the monsters inhabiting adult minds. Adults theoretically should be wiser, yet they prove susceptible to manipulation or possessed by greed, anger, and hatred.

For the film to evoke the right emotions, the perfect actor was needed for the role of the psychopath. Robert Mitchum had previously played positive characters, but there was always something unsettling about him that made him a skillful manipulator and cunning schemer. Therefore, he was perfectly suited for the role of Harry Powell, and alongside his performance in “Cape Fear,” it’s one of his best roles. This character is hard to like, especially after he threatens children with a switchblade. Mitchum was not considered an exceptional actor; he described himself as having three facial expressions: looking right, looking left, and looking straight ahead. But this minimalism made him the perfect, emotionless villain. Supporting roles in Laughton’s film are also successful—such as the silent film star Lillian Gish. She portrays an elderly woman who cares for orphans and is not foolish enough to be deceived by the toxic words of a false priest. Will the venom brewed by Powell affect everyone, or will the old woman with a shotgun defend her charges against this snake in human skin?

Several sequences, such as the nighttime boat escape through the swamps and the discovery of a corpse by an old fisherman, owe their impact not only to the direction but also to the visual cinematography of Stanley Cortez.

night of the hunter

The monochromatic, strikingly lit, and unsettlingly grim photographs, along with sophisticated camera setups, ominous shadows, strong black-and-white contrast, and themes of crime and manipulation, led to comparisons with German Expressionism. Perhaps the most vivid scene reminiscent of Expressionism is the one where children preparing for bed see a large shadow of a man standing by a street lamp on the wall. This scene also serves as an excellent foreshadowing of future events, as the dark-clad figure like a shadow will stalk the terrified children. Formally, it’s artistic cinema; narratively, it’s an exciting thriller. It’s a shame that the film’s poor reception in theaters discouraged Laughton from further directorial attempts.

“The Night of the Hunter” is a masterpiece in its genre, a film worthy of the highest praise and awards. Therefore, it remains one of the most underrated classics in cinema history. It’s a film about how good intentions sometimes lead to unimaginable chaos. It all starts with a father, concerned for his children’s future, committing robbery and murder, exposing the family to mortal danger. Life is a constant struggle between love and hate. To triumph, one must suppress anger and bring forth positive values: goodness, love, sacrifice. Not only black and white strongly contrast with each other—the filmmakers brilliantly juxtaposed elements of good and evil. The hypocrisy and bigotry of the plebeian community, and the obsessive desire for money, are set against childlike sensitivity and simple human kindness portrayed without excessive sentimentality.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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