Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton
Written by James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb
Paul Gregory Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#310 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This is an odd but extremely beautiful film with fantastic performances from Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish, two of my favorite actors ever.
The story takes place in the rural South during the Great Depression. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has robbed a bank and killed a guard in order to provide for his young family. As the police close in, he hides the loot, making his son John and daughter Pearl swear never to reveal the location of the loot to anyone, including their mother Willa (Shelley Winters). Ben is then arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. He has the misfortune of sharing his cell with “Preacher” Harry Powell (Mitchum), who learns many details of Ben’s life but not the location of his money.
Powell, a serial wife murderer, sets off for the Harper farm after his release from prison. He is on a mission to steal the money. If necessary, he will add another widow to his collection. Willa and Powell marry, after which he begins his reign of terror on the children.
Finally, the children escape in the nick of time and set off downriver in their father’s skiff. After some hardship and Harry’s constant menace, they are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Gish), a kind woman who rules over her charges with tough love.
I watched the Criterion Blu-Ray release of this and it looks stunningly beautiful. The lighting is absolute perfection throughout. Mitchum, who was working well outside his comfort zone, makes a fantastic villain but I love Gish even more in this. She has one of the great all-time faces. Somehow this film has always felt very naive to me, especially in the second half where we get all kinds of too obvious symbolism using the beasts of the forest, etc. I think I understand it better now that I’ve heard the commentary. It seems that Laughton was simply ultra faithful to the novel. His vision was to tell the tale through the eyes of the son. My quibbles aside, this is a classic and a must-see. Recommended.