30 for 30: The Night of the Hunter

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

October 08th, 2019

"Not that you mind the killings! There's plenty of killings in your book, Lord..."

     Marking both one of the best films of the 1950s and one of the saddest 'what ifs' and lost possibilities, The Night of the Hunter is a staggering film from actor Charles Laughton. It's been written about a lot, but the level of finesse here feels like the work of a director who is a few films into their filmography, having been able to find their footing and confidence with their first few movies. Laughton had brought everything he learned from his own acting work and films he was a fan of and brought them to life perfectly realized.

     Adapted from the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter follows Harry Powell, a Reverend who frequently has discussions with God and preaches wise words on life to those around him, as he arrives in a town where he woos a widow and tries to play good with her two children. The problem is, Powell also happens to be a serial killer, murdering widows he marries for money, and he's in this town on account of having shared a jail cell with a man who robbed a bank and hid the money with his children. As time goes on, the son is suspicious to the fact that something isn't as it should be, and Powell begins a battle of wits with the children he is now the setpfather of to find the hidden money.

     Unfortunately, the film wasn't successful when it was released and was regarded in less than lukewarm ways critically, which would lead to Charles Laughton never directing another film. An absolute shame since, well, as mentioned above (and everywhere else on the internet you might look), The Night of the Hunter is one of the best American films ever made. The influence he had from German Expressionism and silent films that Laughton brings to the screen are exquisite. The art direction coupled with the cinematography is haunting, and there are endless amounts of shots that could easily double as beautiful paintings (no spoiler but the car underwater shot... *Chef's kiss*). Tree branches reach out towards you and the shadows threaten to envelop you at any moment. The Night of the Hunter begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible to you, and it ranks incredibly high on films I'm dying to experience in a theater.

     But it isn't just the imagery, cinematography, lighting and design that work exceptionally well. Lillian Gish is wonderfully charming, sweet, and powerful as the foil to the murderous Reverend. The all night standoff between the two is one of the most memorable in a film of memorable moments, and though she isn't on screen as much as others, you instantly find yourself hoping Gish comes out the better of the two at the end of the film.
     Of course, a movie that has a main character like Powell essentially lives or dies by its performer, and Robert Mitchum is at the top of his game in this. I've always really liked Mitchum as an actor, whether we follow him as an ex-convict hunting for revenge or a noir detective, he's always one to leave a lasting impression. Mitchell's Powell is, to cut to the point, one of the greatest and scariest villains put on film. He is an arrogant, angry, evil man, and one who absolutely believes he's justified in what he's doing. Whether he's monologuing about love and hate or simply sitting and staring, he exudes a terrifying energy.

     The fact that we never got another directorial feature from Charles Laughton is a great loss, and the fact that he never lived to see his work reevaluated and held at the high standard it deserves is sadder. But at least we were lucky enough to have Laughton decide to direct even one film, and we will forever be haunted by the nightmarish wonders he put on the screen.