IMDB #179 The Night Of The Hunter

When we toss the term "film noir" around, we largely think of attitude- the gumshoe, the gangster, the wiseguy smirking under the brim of a hat. Sure, there are shadows involved, but it's mainly a plot and character-centered reference.

But really it's a loosely defined movement that stemmed from German Expressionism, and few so-called noirs embody those roots more than 1955's The Night Of The Hunter. There's no big city shadows, whiskey-soaked private eyes, or femme fatales involved- it even has religious themes at its core- but it's noir without the cynicism and the sex appeal all the same.

The Key Players:

This would be the only credited directorial effort of Charles Laughton, an Oscar-winning actor perhaps most famous for starring in Mutiny on the Bounty, plus we saw him as Gracchus in Spartacus.

Remember Robert Mitchum from the very first countdown entry, Out Of The Past? What a journey it's been.

Child stars Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce would abandon the business by the end of the 50s to do normal person things instead, no doubt.

Silent film legend Lillian Gish would cement her status with key roles here and in Duel in the Sun after earlier playing muse for D. W. Griffith's masterpieces (though Birth Of A Nation has aged badly, for obvious reasons).

Elsewhere, Shelly Winters (A Place In The Sun, The Poseidon Adventure) gets second billing despite little screentime, and Peter Graves pops up in a minor role once more.

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The Story:

The film opens with an oddly disembodied Gish reading Bible verses to some children's oddly disembodied heads, against a backdrop of stars. What?

Soon we see some children discover a dead body in a basement, and then we meet the killer- a "preacher" named Harry Powell (Mitchum), who talks to God as he drives along, and can't remember whether it's six or twelve widows he's killed so far. He's pulled over and soon sentenced to 30 days in jail for driving a stolen car.

Next, small town crook Ben Harper (Graves), arrives home just ahead of the police to find his children John (Chapin) and little Pearl (Bruce) playing on the lawn. He hides the $10,000 that he killed two men to steal, and makes them promise not to reveal where it is, even to their mother, Willa (Winters). The family looks on as he's dragged off to jail in turn, and sentenced to hang.

Harper and Powell are of course cellmates, and the sadistic preacher learns of the hidden money (though not where it is) when Harper talks during his sleep. After his release and Harper's hanging, he heads to the small town to put the moves on the widow and try and hit it rich- the townsfolk and Willa are impressed by a debonair, seeming man of the cloth, but young John is suspicious.

Claiming to have been the prison chaplin instead of a fellow inmate, he tells Willa that her late husband confessed to throwing that $10,000 in the creek to be rid of it- this confirms John's suspicions, and a war between them begins- Powell asks over and over about the money, and John's mother won't believe that's he after it until she overhears Powell badgering Pearl for it (by now we know that it's stuffed inside Pearl's doll, which she constantly carries around).

Willa puts it together just in time to get stabbed and dumped in the river- the children set off in a schiff downstream, and a weeklong chase is on- the children beg food from houses along the bank and float on, as the creepy, hymn-singing preacher rides a stolen horse in pursuit.

They're taken in by a woman named Rachel Cooper (Gish) that already cares for three other orphans- she's a stridently devout in her purposes as our maniacal preacher, and clearly these two are headed for a showdown.

The Artistry:

For a movie I had heard nothing about, The Night Of The Hunter has a lot going for it- even a few surprisingly pervasive reference points. Mitchum's psychotic preacher has the words "LOVE" and "HATE" tatooed on his fingers, and uses them to tell a simplistic parable- so now you know where that comes from.

Laughton clearly went all out in making his directorial debut: there are elaborately framed shots over people's shoulders, indulgent singalong portions, and thematically heavy moments- Bruce sings an original song about children being caught in a web as the boat is framed by a cobweb- this after we see every animal under the sun on the way downriver.

But it's not distracting- the first half of The Night Of The Hunter drags quite a bit, but once the chase starts there's no pausing for breath. And Mitchum's absolutely commited performance deserves a lot of the credit- part charm, part rage, and a wonderful baritone singing voice. He and Chapin have a wonderful standoff each time they share the screen.

Gish knocks it out of the park as well, while Winters has a thankless part and the other child actors are a non-factor.

Mostly it's a sort of lyricism in the design of the film that makes it rise above it's heavy-handed religious talk and thematic straightforward (Gish even talks right to the camera at the end). Songs that drift in and out, the preacher on horseback framed black on the horizon, and so on.


After a great scene in which Powell tries to wait them outside of Cooper's farmhouse, she wings him with a shotgun and calls the police when he hides in the barn. John has a brief flashback to his own father's arrest when the cops cuff Powell in a very similar fashion, but he's quickly taken away, and in turn sentenced to hang.

The children stay with Cooper, who muses about how resilient children can be as the film ends on Christmas day.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher- I expected little, but it even got a hymn stuck in my head. A hymn! (see below)

The Legacy:

Though it would flop commercially and critically upon release (a chagrined Laughton would never direct again), the film's melding of German Expressionism with a thoroughly American tale of terror has influenced many of today's autuers and gained the film a considerable cult following. It's in the NFR, of course, and on lists as disparate as Empire's Greatest of all time and Bravo's scariest movie moments.

And of course TV Tropes has the list of knuckle-tattoo references, my favorite being Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons with his "LUV" and "HĀT" tattoos.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Maybe one of my favorite scenes of the countdown thus far, as Mitchum sings his creepy calling song "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" as he lurks outside the farm. Gish, brandishing a shotgun in a rocking chair in an image I swear I've seen many other places, joins in- to devout to resist the hymn despite the singer.

Leftover Thoughts:

-In Grubb's novel, the fake preacher is supposedly an allegory for the corrupting influence of religion. In the film he was mostly just a psycho.

-For some reason this 1955 film has a facebook page.

Coming Up...

178. Les Diaboliques

177. Grave Of The Fireflies

176. The Gold Rush

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