Night of the Hunter (1955)

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Directed by Charles Laughton
Written by James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb
1955/USA
Paul Gregory Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#310 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Ben Harper: What religion do you profess, preacher? Rev. Harry Powell: The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.

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.

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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.

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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.


Trailer

6 thoughts on “Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. I can only agree, this is a must-see. You are definitely right about the viewpoint, we are in the position of the children. One of my favorite elements was the self-rightiousness of the villagers, they end up looking very bad.

  2. I saw this in the 1990s at the New Beverly Theater, a famous revival house in Los Angeles. I was there pretty regularly – sometimes more than once a week! – for years and years. The place was almost always packed with cinephiles to see a Cary Grant double feature or Andrei Rublev or Antonioni or two Kurosawa movies or whatever.
    The only film that ever got a standing ovation when I was there was Night of the Hunter.
    It’s pretty awesome.

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