The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.
Is there a more frightening film than "The Night of the Hunter?" Is there a more powerful representation of evil on screen than Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell? Many people would probably say yes but nevertheless "The Night of the Hunter" stands as one of the most powerful evocations of a nightmare in all of cinema. The only film from legendary British character actor Charles Laughton, "The Night of the Hunter" is a difficult film to classify under any particular genre. Part film noir, part fairy tale, part biblical allegory, the film is like a dream or as I said earlier, a nightmare; it exists in a universe where tone and content can shift at any moment. The plot involves the sinister "preacher" named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who kills widowed women and steals their money. After going to jail for stealing a car he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who is to be executed for being part of a robbery witch resulted in two deaths. Powell learns from Harper talking in his sleep that his children know where the money is. After being released, Powell seeks out Harper's wife Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually marrying her in order to find where the money is.
Many people believe Powell is Mitchum's greatest performance and while I haven't seen all of Mitchum's work, I would have to agree. Mitchum has been described as a laconic actor but here he's very forceful. Nevertheless, as in his other performances, you don't seem him trying, he just is Harry Powell. He perfectly embodies a man who hides his evil behind the veil of being a good preacher. He's genuinely scary yet like all great screen villains you come to enjoy his presence because Mitchum is very funny and charismatic in a sinister way. At the same time, you still sympathize with Willa's children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Both young actors, as film critic A.O Scott points out, are never too cute or precious in their roles, which I think would be harmful to the film. Rather, they contrast each other. Chapin the older of the two, gives John a sense of maturity and awareness that is important to the character's ability to see through Powell's hypocrisy. Bruce, the younger of the two, gives Pearl a natural innocence that allows us to question if aware Pearl is of Powell's evil nature or just very forgiving. There is a moment late in the film when Powell finds John and Pearl at the farm of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who takes in runaway children. Pearl surprisingly gives Powell a hug. John and Pearl can be seen as representing two elements of childhood, John symbolizing the ability to see what adults can not namely Powell's evil nature, while Pearl symbolizes the compassionate side of childhood, to be more forgiving; or maybe that's just an assumption. No matter, ultimately John and Pearl are not interchangeable, and that lends the children a layer of complexity that I admire.
What I like most about Powell is that even though he is a hypocrite, he wears his hyprocrisy quite openly, it's just that adults cannot see this because they are blinded by his charisma and his position as a preacher. Of course, these people who admire him, such as Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) are the same people who call for Powell to be lynched at the end of the film. It is in this violent contrast between the admiration shown toward Powell in the early parts of the film and the hatred and mob mentality at the end of the film. It is within this contrast that "The Night of the Hunter" shows us how quickly people can turn on one another, as well as how this mob is similar to Powell in that while they hide behind religious morals they can ultimately be violent.
I don't think "The Night of the Hunter" is an anti-religious film so much as it is against religious fanaticism and is suspicious of evil people who hide behind religion or have twisted religious beliefs in order to serve their purpose. Rachel is the opposite in that her faith is pure. She does not hide any kind of evil nature behind religion or use religion to get what she wants. In the film, the battle between good and evil, love and hate, is represented by pure religion, on Rachel's side, and twisted religion, on Powell's side. It is ironic that Powell, in arguably the most famous scene from the film, enacts the battle between love and hate, with the words "love" tattoed on the fingers of one hand, and "hate" on the other hand. The irony is twofold in that the love/hate scene foreshadows Powell's demise. Love wins in this scene and by the end of the film love, represented by Rachel, wins over Powell. Nevertheless, as I said, the irony is twofold because even though love conquers him, we are left with the hatred of the mob in Powell's last scene. Even when love wins out, people will still act with hatred against others. Even if Powell deserves to be hated because of his crimes, the mob doesn't seem to realize how much they enabled Powell to kill Willa.
Charles Laughton was an English character actor but with "The Night of the Hunter" he created a distinct vision of America. It also represents a vision that exists in the realm of a nightmare, putting it similarly outside any culture while still reflecting America. I think this effect comes from Laughton being inspired by German Expressionist films, which can be traced forward to Film Noir, which is a quintessentially American style. The film exists between these two styles, very expressionistic yet also reminding the viewer of how similar German Expressionism is to Film Noir. However one views the film's visual style, the style itself is simply awesome. I love the shot of Powell, boogeyman style, chasing the children up the basement stairs. That image alone captures how the film can be both terrifying and very funny at the same time. The shot with Powell riding a horse in the background, with the children in the foreground is also breathtaking. This film reminds us how visually powerful movies can be. Laughton died in 1962, before he ever got the chance to possibly direct another film. Some accounts say he never wanted to direct another film after the initial failure of "The Night of the Hunter," others say he was planning to direct another. While it is unfortunate that we don't have more of Laughton's awe-inspiring directorial vision, "The Night of the Hunter" stands as a terrifying, funny, mysterious, and finally, moving portrait of the struggle between good and evil.