A whirling pictorial dervish, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is also a beautiful traumatic fable about a brother and a sister set in the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression. But this film is no history lesson. No, it’s a tale of two children, unloved and on the run, pursued by hysterical religiosity and the ignorance of the adult world.
The plot is a simple one: Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is both a religious fanatic and a cold-hearted serial killer who targets Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), the widow of a petty thief he shared a jail cell with, and who let slip something about a secret stash of stolen loot. Soon Willa’s two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) must escape Harry before it’s too late. Their saving grace may just be the saintly Rachel Cooper, played by silent screen legend Lilian Gish.
Clearly a work of awe and evil, The Night of the Hunter is one of those unshakable cinematic experiences that was misunderstood in its day but has since been reappraised and declared a masterwork.
Sadly, this was the only film ever directed by stage and screen acting giant Charles Laughton (The Mutiny on the Bounty, Witness for the Prosecution), who was heartbroken by the film’s dismal reception. He teamed with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Shock Corridor, Chinatown) for this project and together they achieved a startling merger of German expressionism and film noir.
Adapted by James Agee from Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, itself a rather brilliant southern noir classic, The Night of the Hunter is thick with nocturnal panic, preying on our childhood fear of the dark, and the adult assertion of cruelty and persecution. Here a little girl’s doll becomes an emblem for innocence lost, and a riverside trek bird-dogged by a deistic boogeyman becomes a flight from unrelenting evil on a mythic scale.
The Night of the Hunter achieves an atmosphere of black comedy, creeping dread and mounting terror, making for what many consider to be the quintessential American horror film. It’s no wonder that modern innovators like the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Martin Scorsese regularly cite the film as a major influence. Not to be missed.
Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic and columnist for Taste of Cinema, a comic book author/illustrator (Volume VI of Horseback Salad will be released this fall), screenwriter and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or crashing a party while paraphrasing Groucho Marx.
Pairing film experts with cinema classics, Film Studies aims to expand and enrich your understanding of movies. Each presentation will include a screening of the film and an introductory illustrated lecture by a film critic, teacher, or industry professional.
Designed to appeal to both film buffs and the culturally curious, these talks will contextualize a specific film, looking at the contributions of key creative personnel, the precepts of genre and studio film production, and how the work fits into wider social and historical movements.
Film Studies, August 19th, 1pm
The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955)
starring Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce.