By Bradley Lane
Accomplished dramatic actor Charles Laughton had only ever directed Broadway plays when he set out to make his first film, based on the recently released 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter. Laughton wanted to bring back the visual splendor of the silent film era to sound films, which led him to draw from pioneers of both American and European films of the era to shift his focus on calculated framing and composition. The effects of this emphasis on avant-garde shot selection and a bleak narrative about deception, child endangerment and depression-era anxieties led to a very negative critical and commercial reception. However, nearly 70 years removed from its release, it can be seen for what it truly is: a masterpiece of horror and suspense well ahead of its time that has thematic implications for us now in the modern day.
Set against the Great Depression in West Virginia, the film opens with Ben Harper, a down and out working-class father, being arrested for murder and a botched bank robbery. Unbeknownst to the police however, he stashed his stolen money somewhere in his house before his arrest. Not coincidentally, a smooth-talking priest, Reverend Harry Powell, soon arrives in Harper’s sleepy small town, where he immediately begins to ingratiate himself into the Harper family. Slowly charming Willa, the heartbroken wife of Ben, and mother to John and Pearl, his greedy intentions seem invisible to the town with the exception of the two children.
The inherent horror of a wolf in sheep’s clothing is heightened in the narrative by giving the only two characters with the ability to see through the facade, essentially no power to do anything about it. Given the patriarchal nature of 1930s America, children are constantly dismissed, and Harry Powell is welcomed by the community to preserve the nuclear family in the absence of Ben Harper. This exploitation of the supposed essential cornerstone of American culture makes the horror of Night of the Hunter especially insidious.
Draped in piercing light and deep shadows, the gorgeous black-and-white photography in Laughton’s frame becomes mesmerizing. But as beautiful as the film is, it will always be most closely associated with the performance of a lifetime by the incomparable, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum as Harry Powell is one of the all-time great villain performances; he is at once endlessly charming and arrestingly scary. His unbridled anger and evil lurk just under a well-rehearsed facade of decency and Godliness. He is the manifestation of deceit, the truest version of a false prophet. In the current post-truth media landscape this type of villain can be valuable to us as a culture, to teach us a lesson that leaders often have ulterior motives, and that the oppressed and powerless deserve a seat at the table to be listened to and believed.
What I want to impart most here is that, despite the film’s age, it reads as very modern. The tension gradually escalated to a tremendously exciting and rewarding payoff, and at just 90 minutes it holds audiences at the front of their seat for the entire runtime. Night of the Hunter is a staple of my Halloween movie rotation and I implore you to make it part of yours this year as well. The Night of the Hunter is available to stream for free on Tubi or with an MGM+ subscription. – 5/5 stars