Salvation is a last-minute business, boy.
The Night of the Hunter may be the first and only film directed by actor Charles Laughton but it is also possibly one of the greatest [horror] movies ever made. It’s been years since I’ve watched it, but I remember being blown away by what I saw. It’s hard to believe it was a commercial failure on its first release. I suppose I should revisit it soon since I am writing this. OK fine, I’m watching this again now as I write. You win.
In West Virginia during the 1930s, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a self-appointed preacher and serial killer who justifies murdering women whom he married for their money as doing God’s work. One day after one of his recent murders he is arrested for driving a stolen car and is put in a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves) a local man who murdered two men in a bank robbery for ten thousand dollars that he hid somewhere. Following Harper’s execution, Powell is released from prison and he heads off to find the money. Powell goes back to his old ways and woos Harper’s widowed wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and marries her hoping to find the money. The kids are the only ones who know where it is and Powell does everything he can to find out where it’s hidden.
Visually this movie is just stunning. It leans heavily into some dramatic lighting and set pieces that really draw you in. Even though those sets are blatantly obvious throughout the film it is still frighteningly beautiful to watch. It honestly has some of the most impressive and haunting images through out. Images that have shaped horror films for decades to come after. I don’t want to say much more and give anything away. Just watch and you will see shots from later films and know where they came from. Everything about the film is so purposefully done it’s hard to believe they are looking to remake it. I just don’t know if they can recreate the magic of the faux river sequence towards the end the same way.
And Robert Mitchum … what can I say? His portrayal of Harry Powell is hands down one of the greatest performances ever. He’s so damn charismatic that you can see how everyone falls for his lies. Just check out this scene and see what I mean. He just oozes confidence and one can not ignore what he has to say with his commanding voice. And yet, at the same time he is also one of the most evil and smarmy characters ever put on film. It’s easy to see how he is easily one of the greatest villains of all time.
What The Night of the Hunter Means to Us
There are a select few older black and white movies that I continually go back to for a rewatch and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is one of them. Honestly, it’s all because of Robert Mitchum. Harry Powell is one of the most menacing and sinister characters out there and Mitchum plays him to perfection. He was a real-life boogeyman that hid behind a holy man façade. There is an unsettling aspect in this film between Mitchum’s performance, the black and white imagery, and the way Laughton shoots the villain mainly in silhouette. One of the best examples of that is here in this scene. It’s a movie and performance that helped me fall in love with villains.
This film deserves every bit of the accolades it receives. It is honestly one of the most frightening movies ever. Even if it is tame in comparison to todays standards it keeps your heart pumping. The acting, the music and the lighting are all top notch and the story does everything it can to keep you terrified and entertained.
What do you guys think about The Night of the Hunter? Share your thoughts below!