- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- The film is 92-minutes total, and the final third is an extended chase sequence
- 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”
- Must-See / Masterpiece border film
A masterpiece in my opinion. A top 150 film of all time. Great direction, stunning black-and white cinematography, great dialogue (especially the love-hate monologue by Mitchum), perfect pacing, well written characters and flawless performances. Mitchum’s performance is a top 50 of all time in my opinion. I also think that Gish is slightly better in this film than Winters (all through both are great in it but not at the same level with Mitchum’s towering performance).
I wish Laughton had directed more films. A wonderful film like this had a hard time back then with the critics and because of that Laughton was discouraged and never directed again. Very unfortunate, he surely knew how to get performance out of people.
I must disagree on the top 150 of all-time; I think Drake makes the right call with this as only a MS/MP.
I agree that the end seems a little disjointed. The gothic horror and surrealist aspects are fantastic, however. Some of the best lighting I’ve seen in a B&W film. Absolutely loved some of the shots along the river. And, in particular, I liked the shot of the two barns (one of which from where the silloutte shot above is from).
@Drake- what would you say are Laughton’s best performances?
My top 5 are (for now) :
1. Mutiny on the Bounty
2. Island of Lost Souls
3. Witness for the Prosecution
4. The Private Life of Henry VIII
5. Ruggles of Red Gap
@RujK- Great list- I might give the nudge to his work in Island of Lost Souls but I have no big problems with this list here. Good work!
@RujK – You need to see him in Advise and Consent, masterful exploration of the cloak-and-dagger politics of Washington DC and he is at the absolute center of it; the film strikes lightning whenever he’s on screen.
@Zane- thank you for the recommendation. I am a big admirer of Laughton so I will definitely check this one out when I come to 1962 with my marathon.
I have never seen anything quite like this. It is a strange film and I mean that as a compliment, it’s unique. Visually you have the German Expressionism influence as mentioned on this page. The narrative plays out like a fairly tale, something like Little Red Riding Hood with Harry Powell playing an excellent Big Bad Wolf. I also couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain as another influence.
Is this the greatest “one and done” film? Are there any other films that are MS or MP level from directors who never made another film before or after?
@James Trapp- not a MS or MP (at least after one viewing)- but this discussion came up when Bo Ho’s An Elephant Sitting Still came out in 2018 and wider in 2019– he passed away and this was his only feature so this is it http://thecinemaarchives.com/2020/01/11/an-elephant-sitting-still-2018-bo-hu/
@Drake – thanks, I just looked at the page, sad indeed. I’ll check it out though.