Preachers are scary, I had a judo and jiu-jitsu instructor who was a preacher, he was very scary, especially when he was choking you unconscious!
Screenplay By: James Agee & Charles Laughton
Directed By: Charles Laughton & Robert Mitchum
The central theme of The Night Of The Hunter is obvious, good versus evil. An obvious theme, but it is played out to near perfection. The idea of good versus evil is as old as time, and placing it in the depression era works perfectly, just as it did for the TV show “Carnivàle”. The setting is what propels the story, because good versus evil is one thing, but good versus evil in a land that is nothing but expression and stark imagery is highly compelling. The Night Of The Hunter also goes down the path of sexuality. Publicly a veneer of impurity has been placed upon it, but we see that behind closed doors characters yearn for it. Willa wants it, the Reverend loves to punish it and the entire world of The Night Of The Hunter represses it and acts out in anger over it.
I have already mentioned “Carnivàle”, but it is worth noting that The Night Of The Hunter does remind me of a few different movies as well, and that’s not a bad thing. I couldn’t help but think of Shadow Of A Doubt at first. The character of Reverend Powell is similar to Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie, but he’s also a bit different. Whereas Charlie was nice looking on the outside and used charm to win people over, Powell is nasty, and he doesn’t hide it. Rather he overpowers people and bends them to his will and all the while they don’t even realize what he’s doing. I was also reminded of Fanny Och Alexander in regards to the preacher using his power to subvert people. The Night Of The Hunter is its own movie, but it does bear similarities to those works and it was a joy to discover & think about them.
One can’t talk about The Night Of The Hunter for all that long without delving into the performance of Robert Mitchum as Reverend Powell. His performance in The Night Of The Hunter is the perfect example of the right actor for the right part. Without getting into character Mitchum exudes a sullen almost lazy attitude about life. When he does get into character and you juxtapose that attitude with his maniacal drive to purify you get sheer terror and horror. Lillian Gish is all well and good as the opposing light side, but this is Mitchum’s movie. He is terror personified and the template for all great screen villains to follow.
I was very impressed with the use of music in The Night Of The Hunter. The music is light and cheery for the most part and that adds an odd bit of morbidity to an already odd movie. The images contained in the film are also quite stirring and add to the odd nature. The visual landscape of The Night Of The Hunter never seems quite real, it looks as if it exists in a world just outside our own. The music and the imagery help to set the tone for the film, one that never lets up until the Rachel character comes along and pushes back the darkness that enveloped the picture till that point.
One scene, shot or image in particular that bears discussing is that of Willa Harper underneath the river in her Model-T. It is a striking image and yet it is incredibly beautiful. The way she floats in place is haunting, and the movement of her hair to match that of the seaweed is mesmerizing. The music laid over the top of it as well as the Reverend’s voice entering near the end just add to the morbid curiosity the scene engenders. It is an intricately beautiful shot, but it is also at this point in time that Laughton lets us know this isn’t a typical movie. The wife will not be saving the kids, this is true horror and you may not like where it goes.
The only downfall to The Night Of The Hunter is a big one and that is the ending. The movie should stop when Reverend Powell is removed from the barn. Evil has been beaten, good has triumphed and the showdown was a classic one. What is shown after that feels like unnecessary additions to the film. Those scenes only tell us what the showdown already has, they actually muddy the issue a bit. The one flaw I can find in The Night Of The Hunter is the ending, or continuation of one, but it is a major flaw.
Upon its release The Night Of The Hunter was panned critically and failed commercially. Time has been more kind to this picture, ushering it into the pantheon of great movies. The Night Of The Hunter is a great example of the need to revisit movies, because while some will always remain the same others may be misjudged or found to contain qualities not seen the first time. No lectures about love and hate will be found here, nor any tattoos on my fingers, for that you need to watch The Night Of The Hunter and you really should.