Actor turned director Charles Laughton really knocked-it out of the park with his only directorial effort. The Night of the Hunter. It’s a luscious-looking and darkly comic thriller starring Robert Mitchum as a serial-killing Holy-man.
The Night of the Hunter is a gloriously dark piece which sees killer Harry Powell (Mitchum) marrying a widow (Shelley Winters) in an attempt to steal the money that her dead husband (Peter Graves) hid after a bank robbery. However, Powell doesn’t count on the naive craft of her two children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce).
Laugton never directed another film after The Night of the Hunter – its commercial and critical failing hurt too much. It’s a shame, because he made an assured debut with this adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel. It’s a visual masterpiece. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s expressionistic camera work is stunning – it creates mood, atmosphere and tension. Every camera angle has meaning and every shadow has bearing. It looks like a charcoal painting on celluloid.
Robert Mitchum gives a multilayered performance as Powell. It’s a role that shows serious self-confidence and vulnerability. However, above all he’s a cold blooded killer. His character is a man who uses God as a way of covering his own mental and emotional inferiority. Mitchum’s Powell is a living and breathing cinematic big bad wolf, who works his way into the fairy tale childhood of the young central characters. In a way, Laughton’s film is an update of the work by the brothers Grimm, with John and Pearl as the Hansel and Gretal-type characters who attempt to outwit Mitchum’s physical embodiment of pure evil.
This is an American gothic piece – it’s a horror movie hiding under the guise of a thriller. You can almost see why critics and audiences spurned it back in 1955. It simply doesn’t fit in with studio releases of that time. It’s almost too textured and too dark.
The Night of the Hunter is a film that has inspired many filmmakers over the years. Its subtle style seeps-in and stays with you. Watch it and see if you agree.