During my first screenwriting class we watched The Night of the Hunter (1955). Most films introduced to me in school is they are normally either a hit or miss. However, for the most part this particular professor always introduced films that I adored even if the rest of the class hated them. Then again this could be partly because I do hate many films. I believe at least one good thing lies within every film. Maybe this is a bit naive to admit, but I feel that’s the truth.
One does not have to look far to find something great about The Night of the Hunter. This is also a film I know most people have not seen. This is partly because the film came out in 1955, the other fact could be because some people I know will not watch black and white cinema. Both reasons pain me. Just because a film is older does not mean the feature is bad by any means. The Night of the Hunter is a very unusual film and one that I wished I owned so I could watch again this Halloween season.
After such an introduction, I am determined some of you are wondering what The Night of the Hunter is about now. The synopsis is slightly simple, but the story adds layers of complexity that make the film one of the best thrillers around. The story focuses on Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He is not a good man by any means, but manages to trick many people in believing so through religious means. When he goes to jail he must share a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), he discovers that the condemned murdered his $10,000 hidden for his wife and his family. The only people who knows the location of the money are Ben’s son John (Billy Chapin) who is merely nine years old and his four year old daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
After Harry gets out from jail and they execute Ben for his crimes, Harry travels to the town Ben’s widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) resides with her children. Because he can quote the scripture, speak various sermons and hymns, Willa agrees to marry the crazed man. While she feels he has married her for love and all the other reasons two people get married, he quickly informs her otherwise. They will never consummate their marriage because the act of sex is sinful. The true reason is because he merely wants the money and is not willing to lose focus and sight on his goals.
Afterward, Willa becomes depressed and extremely confused. One night as she is listening in on his conversation with the children, Willa realizes that Harry is trying to force Pearl into telling him where the whereabouts of the cash. Resigned to their fate, the children manage to get away from the house and go downriver to escape the deranged preacher. The two quickly discover Powell is following them and must continue running to keep their father’s secret safe.
The Night of the Hunter produced quite a few amazing performances. Harry Powell is beyond creepy. Mitchum is one of the most talented actors of his time, but manages to provide an unforgettable performance within the film. The fact this is a film that I have only seen once and can remember so many details about speaks volumes. Mitchum creates an unlovable character, but a character role that demands respect because he manages to portray such a despicable man. No one who has seen the film will forget the shadow casts upon the wall as Powell calls out children in a tone that only Mitchum could have pulled off. In every aspect, Harry Powell is one of the most frightening on-screen villains of all time.
Then of course the acting of Miss Shelly Winters. Willa has many reasons to act the way she does. After all, she must raise two children by herself. She is sexually repressed and cannot understand her current husband’s lack of interest in her. However upon finding out, slight spoiler alert head, her realizations make her pay the ultimate price with her life.
Then the awkwardness of the children that helps perpetuate fascinating imagery. Imagery that seems like it is out of a fantasy world in most respects. Lastly one must mention Lillian Gish. Despite her playing a supporting role, she manages to give a gripping performance that only adds to the film.
Overall, The Night of the Hunter will always be one of my favorite thrillers. I love the religious nature of the film. There has always been something engaging about a man, or woman for that matter, who uses their faith to do something incredibly horrible. In many ways, the reason this is so intriguing is because of The Ten Commandments of course is “Thou Shalt not kill.” Yet based on faith a person somehow gets the idea that God has told them to commit such heinous acts.
The film deserves far more recognition than it has already garnered. The film was not a commercial success by any means. I must admit that I would not have run across on my own had it not been for my amazing college professor. The story will haunt your thoughts for time to come and you too will be one of the rare people in life who will never be able to hear the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” the same ever again.