“Beware of false prophets that come in sheep’s clothing…………
It is a shame Charles Laughton never directed another film. Not many first time filmmakers are as impressive as this the first time out. “The Night of the Hunter” is a dark atmospheric thriller that grips you like a vise and never let’s go. The screenplay written by famed film critic and writer James Agee and Charles Laughton, who received no screen credit, was based on a novel of the same name. The novel used a true life incident as the basis for the story. Agee is known for his book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, ignored when first published, and is now considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In the 1940’s Agee began work as a film critic for the magazine “The Nation” and wrote his first screenplay, “The African Queen” in 1951 based on C.S. Forester’s novel. “The Night of the Hunter” was his second screenplay. Laughton, of course, was already a successful actor in such movies as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “Rembrandt,” “The Big Clock” and so many others. The film is beautifully and richly photographed by Stanley Cortez. Cortez other works include “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and two Sam Fuller films, “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss”. Cortez was also the Cinematographer on the 1991 TV movie remake of “The Night of the Hunter” which starred Richard Chamberlain.
The film was not a hit with critics or the public at the time of its release and did not win any awards or even receive any nominations. Laughton who made one of the best expressionistic film noirs never directed another film .
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is sentenced to hang for his part in a bank robbery and the killing of two people. Before being picked up by the law Harper hides the stolen money at his home and gets his two young children to promise not to reveal where the money is hidden to no one. While in prison, Harper meets the self anointed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to get Harper to reveal where he has hidden the money. Believing that Harper told his two kids, John and Pearl, where the money is, Powell, upon his release makes his way to Harpers home where he woos Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s gullible widow, and the whole town. The one person who is not won over by the hell preaching reverend is young John. Powell marries Willa but rejects her sexually telling her that her body is only for “begettin’ children.” Eventually convinced that Willa does not know where the money is he kills her in a superbly composed and horrifying ritualistic bedroom sacrificial scene. As she lies in bed, he raises his hand; the one with LOVE tattooed on his fingers, and comes down toward her plunging the knife into her. Being 1995, this is off screen. Not getting anywhere with the two young children on confessing where the money is hidden he begins to lose his patience locking them in the cellar. John and Pearl manage to escape and runaway traveling along the river eventually making their way to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) a woman who takes in wayward children. In these scenes, the film takes on a more lyrical fairy tale twist. Powell goes out in search of the children and eventually finds them but Rachel, unlike most adults before her, sees through the phony preacher. After a tense night and a confrontation, Rachel calls the police and they arrest Powell. The town people rise up and demand justice forming a lynch mob led by Walt and Elsie Spoon (the luncheonette owners where Willa worked). The police take Powell out the back door of the jail to escape the mob transporting him to somewhere safer as Rachel Cooper gathers all her kids to get them out of harms way. The film ends with a homey Christmas scene at Rachel’s place.
There’s one scene that takes place in the luncheonette where Willa worked. It takes place after Powell killed her. To cover up for her disappearance Powell is telling Walt and Icey Spoon that Willa ran off leaving her children and him behind. The couple try to console him and at one point Walt tells him don’t worry, she’ll come back. Powell, sitting at the counter, head hanging down replies “She’ll not be back I reckon I can promise you that.” As he finishes the last few words his eyes are raised upward and there’s the most chilling evil sinister look on his face. A wonderful piece of acting by Mitchum that has stuck with me and even sent a chill down my spine.
Other wonderful scenes include the discovery of Willa’s body at the bottom of the lake; the cellar scenes where the two kids are hiding are some of the most gripping in the film and the entire sequence with the two kids going down the river. There’s also a visually stunning scene of Powell riding on horseback as he pursues the kids shot completely in silhouette. The list just goes on. It is difficult to believe that Cortez was not recognized for his work on this film. I found the scenes with Rachel Cooper, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s work and Laughton may have intentionally done that, or maybe it is just me associating Gish with Griffith.
The only disappointing part of the film was the ending, which seems a little forced and frankly, it is unbelievable that nosey bodies Walt and Icey Spoon are the type to lead an angry lynch mob of town folks who felt betrayed by the deceptive Powell.
Today most agree that Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances in this film. The entire cast is good but Mitchum is superb. He is the personification of evil dressed in the Lord’s clothing. With the letters spelling out LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers he preaches the word of the Lord while stealing and killing his way toward hell. As most film lovers know a few years, later Mitchum would create another memorable villain, Max Cady, in the 1962 version of “Cape Fear.”