In the Deep South, a serial-killing preacher hunts two young children who know the whereabouts of a stash of money.
The only film directed by the great English actor Charles Laughton, "The Night of the Hunter" is a brilliant allegory about the battle between good and evil. The film failed upon its release but is now considered a classic. Robert Mitchum has never been better as the malevolent "preacher" who marries the hapless Shelley Winters. Mitchum had been in prison with Winters husband and knows there is money to be had from a robbery the deceased husband committed, but where is it? Though Shelley falls under Mitchum"s twisted religious zeal, her children a little boy and girl instinctively know this man is bad, bad, bad. Spoiler alert: Shelley Comes to a watery end and the children must flee from Mitchum who has discovered the money is hidden in little Pearl's doll. After an arduous journey mainly by boat (the Ohio river?) John and Pearl come to rest in the saintly arms of the magnificent Lillian Gish. But Mitchum is relentless in his pursuit and that is when the eternal battle between good and evil is fought one more time. I will not reveal which side prevails but let's just say for an old broad Lillian is a formidable opponent. A film I saw as a young boy it left an impression on me that was powerful. A deeply disturbing yet uplifting movie "Night of the Hunter" is not to be missed. This is Gummshoe signing off with two fists up for "Night of the Hunter."
Laughton crafts a nightmarish fairytale that stands up now as a true masterpiece. A religious maniac marries an idiotic widow and mother of two children in the hope of finding out where the $10,000 is hidden that the now executed husband and father garnered from a robbery. Upon release back in 1955, the critics of the time kicked this first directorial effort from Charles Laughton to such a degree he never directed again. Watching the film now and observing the tide of praise for it as each year goes by, one can only hope that those critics were rounded up and sent to a faraway island to learn about how to view with open heart. The Night Of The Hunter is to me quite simply one of the greatest films ever laid down on the screen. Firstly you have to ask yourself exactly what genre the film belongs to? That alone should lead you to find out that the film is something different, even unique, because it covers so many bases. Perhaps that is what the critics back then couldn't quite fathom? Is it Crime? Is it a Thriller? Horror, Drama, Noir, even a terrifying mother goose fairytale (that last one was Laughton's terming of his masterpiece), truth is, is that it's a multitude of earthly traits masquerading as a good versus evil parable. The work on the film is as good as it gets, the direction from Laughton is sublime, his visual style alone makes the film a feast for the sharp eye connoisseur. Observe some of the cutaway sets, take in the expressionist use of shadows, an underwater sequence that is gorgeous yet terrifying at the same time. I dare you to stop the hairs on your neck standing up on end as the silhouette of Mitchum's evil preacher Harry Powell looms large over the children at bedtime. The film is full of striking images that in themselves are telling the story, witness the pursuit of the children by Powell, the children's river journey is all dreamy and calm, rabbits, frogs and spiders all are prominent to give the feeling that the kids are safe, cut to Powell all in black, cloaked in evil, always one step away from his prey, perhaps a devil in priests attire? The acting is top draw, Mitchum (in a career making role) plays it perfect, evil personified mixed with gentle panto fusion at just the right times. Lilian Gish, in what surely has to be one of the great feminine roles of all time, is precious, quite simply precious, while the children are a believable delight because Laughton has got us viewing this uncertain world through such untainted eyes. Crowning it off is the cinematography from Stanley Cortez, I can only describe it as bleakly beautiful, it impacts on the eyes as much as the head as this truly majestic piece of work unfolds. If you don't see this as a masterpiece then I urge you to watch it every year until you do. Because when it hits you, that bit that you just didn't get, it's the point when you realise why you love cinema after all. 10/10 in every respect.
Continuing with my quest to establish where or not Charles Laughton ever made a bad movie, I recently came, again, to this - one of my all time favourite films. I remember cowering behind the sofa as a child when this film came on television late in the evening. It all centres around a robber who has hidden $10,000 somewhere. His jailbird pal "Powell" (Robert Mitchum) is out, masquerading as a puritanical preacher, and determined to befriend the man's family and to scoop the loot. Shelley Winters is the naive, now widow, "Willa" who falls hook, line and sinker for the wiles and charms of this shrewd and duplicitous man - and that does not go at all well for her! Soon the children "John" (Billy Chapin) and his sister "Pearl" (Sally Jane Bruce) are in mortal peril. Can they escape his clutches? Where is the cash? Is there any cash? For me, this is easily the best effort on screen from Mitchum, he just oozes a malevolence that is palpable. The two kids, too, are on great form - managing to deliver performances that stay on the right side of petrified hysteria as we all begin to appreciate the accumulating sense of menace. A big screen on a rainy night with a drop of red wine and this is as good as cinema gets. The pacing of the story is accomplished, the audio editing is effective, the use of a gently potent script and a cast that enthral make it all captivating. It wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. Outrageous.