• The Night of the Hunter is much more than just the chance for Robert Mitchum to sink his teeth into the Harry Powell character- one of the all-time great screen villains.
  • It has been described as one of the great American Gothic films– Charles Laughton described it himself as a “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”- and upon revisit I was surprised at how musical it was, there are four songs in the first 18-minutes, and Mitchum’s marvelous baritone often sings a few bars of “Leaning” …. haunting.
  • The film opens with Lillian Gish telling a story to some disembodied children sort of placing the story in fairy tale land. It is the story of a bluebeard in the Powell character—at type that had been done before by Chaplin in some ways in Monsieur Verdoux in 1947. Powell’s heart is black though—and this pairs well with Mitchum’s work in Cape Fear in 1962.
  • It does not ruin the movie by any stretch, but young Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce as John and Pearl Harper are bad- they cannot act.
  • Laughton leans heavily on the aerial shots in the opening

The shot of Mitchum at the fence at the 16-minute mark is inspired- taking the children’s point of view

  • At the 20-minute mark Mitchum (what a voice for a preacher) gives his “love and hate” monologue (Spike Lee pays homage in Do the Right Thing with Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem)
  • The film was shot by Stanley Cortez—the cinematographer behind 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons who worked with Welles of course.

Welles, and Gregg Toland, would clearly have a big effect on Cortez—the greatest shot in The Night of the Hunter is the sequence of young John Harper in the loft with Mitchum’s Powell in the far background. It is right out of Toland’s work in The Grapes of Wrath.

  • Strong work from James Gleason, Evelyn Varden and especially Shelley Winters in support—poor Winters is one of cinema’s great victims– getting knocked off in A Place in the Sun (back at the bottom of a body of water again) and Lolita, too.
  • Laughton is not quite Dreyer in Gertrud (that is no insult)- but a great use of the flame in the front right of the mise-en-scene during the tent revival scene.

Mitchum is uncanny as Harry Powell. It is sort of the opposite of what Brando is doing in the early 1950s, but a watershed role and performance nonetheless

At the 38-minute mark the entire house is lit up like it is possessed—magnificent achievement in lighting. It is hard to tell what time of auteur Laughton could have been (sadly, this is his one and only film as director)—but certainly the effect of German expressionism has to be mentioned with The Night of the Hunter.

At the 40-minute mark Laughton and Cortez create a steeple shape inside the bedroom with lighting yet again

45-minute is the famous bottom of the lake composition– gothic, grim… fabulous

Laughton follows that up with the iris as Mitchum’s Powell approaches the house—the iris is pure Magnificent Ambersons. It is used beautifully here- I wish it were repeated.

  • The film is 92-minutes total, and the final third is an extended chase sequence

Laughton is inventive- at the 58-minute mark the boat for the children is floating by in the background with the spider web in the foreground.

The jaw-dropper, all-timer shot is at the 65-minute mark with the audio from Mitchum’s singing. in silhouette in the background- immaculate.

  • I do not think as highly as Gish’s performance as others. I think it helps she is a big screen presence and figure—something needed to stand up to Mitchum’s Powell. But the writing for her is so deliberate. She tells us who she is in “I’m a strong tree with branches for these little birds” as she practically winks to the camera. These are relatively small flaws but at the end I don’t understand Laughton turning the mob into the bad guy and then slapping a happy ending on it- “they abide and they endure”

At the 81-minute mark the steeple shadow inside the room is now a triangle

  • Must-See / Masterpiece border film