The Night of the Hunter (1955) is the second film in Margaret & David’s new segment on classic films on At The Movies. To read their far more knowledgeable review, head over here.
This film is creepy. I’m not talking guy staring at you on the bus creepy. I mean weird clown staring at you from outside your window at night whilst twirling a knife creepy. Also, it’s raining and your parents have left you home alone. And maybe there’s a dog barking, or maybe it’s a wolf howling. That creepy. But unlike the clown thing, I mean this in a good way. If you want to watch a creepy film, watch this one. Just not alone in the dark. Unless you really enjoy being creeped out on your own just before bed.
First of all, the plot is basically about a crazy preacher, or a crazy person pretending to be a preacher, or a crazy person who just thinks he’s a preacher, which when you think about it is just as bad, named Harry Powell (the deliciously disturbing Robert Mitchum) who goes around marrying rich widows and then killing them for their money. He must have some pretty expensive habits, though, because he’s apparently done this a fair bit but is now completely tapped out, although it’s entirely possible his misbegotten fortune was confiscated when he was sent to prison for stealing a car. Enter Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a good-guy bank robber (which means he was only stealing so his kids didn’t have to live in the gutter during the USA’s Great Depression – the irony soon becomes apparent, so don’t worry about muddied moral waters here) who kills two people during his heist and is sent to share a cell with Powell. Powell wants the $10,000 Harper stole, Harper is executed for his crimes, and Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is left a helpless widow. See where this is going? Here’s the twist. Before going away to the big house, Harper hid his stash of cash and only his young children, John and Pearl, know where it is. Powell marries Willa, who is convinced the money is lost at the bottom of the river (there’s more irony here, but I won’t spoil it). This means the deranged, woman-hating preacher (the wedding night scene borders on horrific – psychologically speaking) has to wring the location of the ill-gotten gold out of Ben’s sworn-to-silence children.
Needless to say, Powell doesn’t get what he wants by not being creepy, and the clueless, interfering Icey Spoon (Evelyn Warden) and her daffy husband Walt (Don Beddoe) don’t help matters. *minor spoiler – skip to next para* the kids end up on the run and eventually find some sort of haven with the doddering Rachel Cooper (the divine Lilian Gish), but the preacher proves to be a capable hunter. The scene where Cooper sits on her rocking chair guarding the house from Powell while the two sing a duet of a hymn is truly masterful and, you guessed it, really creepy.
Okay, I keep saying this film is creepy, and it is – skin-crawlingly so – but that’s not all down to Robert Mitchum’s Powell or the film’s premise. The cinematography seems intent on propelling the viewer into a chiaroscuro nightmare landscape of sharply delineated angles and surrealist imagery. Many of the shots look like still photographs, given life by the movement of a single object. In one scene, the Harper children are hiding in the loft of a barn. John Harper looks out of the hay window that frames the landscape. The scene morphs into some sort of shadow theatre play – the horizon and lone windmill are black against the whiteness of the sky. Another shadow moves slowly across the vista: the silhouette of a man on horseback signing a hymn. We know it’s the preacher and that he’s hunting the children. It’s beautiful and eerie all at once.
This is also a film student’s film. What I mean by that is that there’s always something for you to pick out and analyse. A friend and I (no, I did not watch this one alone) spent a bit of time debating what the frog (or was it a toad) might mean. It’s that sort of film. And it’s not just what’s in the shots that is laden with meaning. The camera angles used are also off kilter, and several shots are from bizarre perspectives (like from between the legs of various cows).
I was ready to hate this film. I really was. As a general rule, I do not like creepy films about young children being mercilessly hunted by a psychopath, and imagery that reminds me of the distorted world of nightmares is not something I seek out for pleasure. But I have to say I really enjoyed this film. Yes, there are a couple of cringe-inducing pantomime moments, but these don’t detract from what the film accomplishes. It’s a creepy thriller and a good one at that. The ending is both complex and moving in disturbing ways. This film may well keep you up at night, if not by inspiring nightmares, then at least by stimulating thought.
The Night of the Hunter: True Classic
Tune in next week for All That Jazz!!!