The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a Southern Gothic, rural noir about a serial killer preacher, but the film’s bloody greatness is due to a murderers’ row of talented filmmakers: The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum in one of his most iconic roles, and the movie is written by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men author and great American film critic James Agee. Shelley Winters, Peter Graves and silent cinema queen Lillian Gish round out the cast, and actor Charles Laughton – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) – helms this picture in the only feature he ever directed. With such an actorly bunch it’s no wonder that The Night of the Hunter is filled with great performances, but it’s also chilled with doom-filled mood and peppered with black humor.
Mitchum plays Rev. Harry Powell in this movie that kicks off the Belcourt’s Robert Mitchum: 100 Years celebration – the series begins on the 20th anniversary of the star’s death on July 1 and ends on what would have been his 100th birthday on Aug. 6. Powell is a wandering preacher who also happens to be a serial killer – he’s a misogynist who preys on widows and their savings. During a jail stint, Powell finds out about a hidden stash of cash from a man who is executed. Powell makes his way to a small West Virginia town after his release in search of his cellmate’s widow and the hidden loot.
Again, acting is front and center in The Night of the Hunter and Mitchum’s Powell is part suave and part sadistic, and when he turns the home of the widow and her two young children into a minefield of abuse and mind games you believe every word that he sings or snarls. In a famous scene Powell shows the H-A-T-E tattoos on the knuckles of his left hand and the L-O-V-E tattoos on his right before diving into a sermon about how love and hate wrestle for control in this world. And that’s the overriding theme of the film – the idyllic little town is the garden and Mitchum is the viper.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez’ camera floats buoyantly over the Ohio River before the buildings and houses of the town come into view during the film’s opening scene – it’s an all-seeing God’s-eye-view that’s accompanied by quotes from the Gospel of Matthew read in voiceover. Cortez gives us gorgeous shots of an ominous black train racing against a bright sky through the swirling billows from its smokestack, and his farmhouse interiors, West Virginia landscapes, storefronts and buildings are lit with dramatic, expressionistic shadows. Cortez’ expertise in capturing psychological moods blossomed in his work on films like The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Shock Corridor (1963), but the cinematographer’s penchant for putting mental pathology on screen was already evidenced in this film.
In addition to the acting and the camera work, Laughton’s film is filled with the sounds of childhood chants, Bible verses, hymns, counting off a game of hide-and-seek and even a chilling scene where a boy tells his sister a fairy tale in their shadow-filled bedroom at night. All of these incidences are tweaked for maximum creepiness, giving the whole proceeding that combination of silly and savage that we associate with the tales of the Brothers Grimm. After an execution at the jail the children shout with glee “Hing, hang, hung. See what the hangman done.” Laughton’s focus on children highlights the film’s lost innocence themes, and when a group of playing children discover a woman’s corpse, we know that The Night of the Hunter is set in a fallen place from which few might escape.
When this film debuted in 1955 it didn’t do well at the box office or with critics, and maybe it was just ahead of its time. In 2017 Mitchum’s carnivorous cool, Shelley Winters’ stylized theatrics, Cortez’ lyrical camera work and Agee’s snappy script all combine to electrifying effect. The Bible recitation at the beginning of the film reminds viewers to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, cautioning that “you will know them by their fruits.” The fruits that grow from the dark soil of The Night of the Hunter are bitter at best, but I bet you won’t be able to resist. Go ahead, just one bite.
The Night of the Hunter screens at the Belcourt Theatre July 1-3. Go to www.belcourt.org for times and tickets.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.