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Towering actor Charles Laughton only directed one movie and this is it. Set in rural America during the Great Depression, Night of the Hunter tells the tale of a psychopathic serial killer who is on the hunt for the fruits of a $10,000 bank robbery he heard about from his cellmate at prison.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a preacher dressed in black, is driving a stolen Model T while reminiscing aloud about the chain of widows he has married and slain for their meager savings. Stopping at a strip joint and watching the female flesh, his hate-filled face is a sight to behold. As he becomes aroused by the "evil temptress," he involuntarily opens his switchblade knife (an obvious phallic symbol) whose blade pops thru the side of his jacket. A police officer collars him for the theft of the car and he gets locked up in the state penitentiary.
Another sequence shows Harper, a bank robber who shoots a couple men and escapes with police in hot pursuit. He manages to get home and hide the money, telling his two children not to tell, just before he is captured, thrown in jail, and ultimately hanged. While awaiting execution, Harper is a cellmate with Powell, who learns of the money through Harper's talking in his sleep. Following the hanging, Powell is released from prison. He works his way to his former cellmate's hometown.
Using his considerable charm, Powell ingratiates himself with the unsophisticated townsfolk, woos Harper's gullible widow Willa (Shelly Winters), and marries her. When Powell is unable to find the money or get the children to tell, although the boy slips and indicates he knows where, Powell murders Willa with his switchblade, putting her body in the river, strapped to the driver's seat of her Model T. Powell spreads the story that Willa ran off to "one of those Sodoms down the river." The naïve townsfolk believe him. Powell begins to terrorize the two children to reveal the hiding place, however, they manage to fool him and make their escape down the river.
The film abruptly changes tone as the children float down river in their skiff under a dreamlike, starry sky. Thwarted but not outdone, Powell steals a horse and pursues the children. The children are sleeping one night in a barn when they hear the familiar refrain, "Leaning, leaning, leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Looking out, they see Powell approaching on his horse. Jumping back in the boat they continue down river where they fall asleep and the boat drifts to shore. They are awakened by the film's second strong character, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). Cooper, a widow, has adopted several children left homeless by the Depression and she takes in Pearl and John, too. A no-nonsense guardian, Cooper (and her shotgun) prove more than a match for the evil Harry Powell.
Director Charles Laughton did a good job establishing the vicious character of Harry Powell and throughout the first half using shadows and unusual camera angles to make a very eerie, frightening world out of commonplace rural America.
Where his direction begins to misfire is the lukewarm chase after the children and the stay with Rachel Cooper. The violence perpetrated by Powell is unconvincing and lacks sufficient vigor to be believable from his half-hearted attempts to capture the children in the cellar to the final confrontation with the bible-quoting spinster. There are frequent unintentional moments of humor and that, with a lagging pace begins to take the edge off the tension so grandly created during the impeccable first half. It is probable that Laughton, an unparalleled actor, tried to put too much into his first film, thereby spoiling the mood and torpedoing his chances for additional directing jobs.
Photography by Stanley Cortez does a good job of making a creepy, spooky experience out of the film. Rabbits, turtles, spiders, are lovingly photographed in close-up, using a combination of antique and surreal techniques. Set design, unfortunately, is very poor and theatrical, again taking away from the overwhelming mood of horror and unintentionally creating mirth.
Acting by Robert Mitchum is quite impressive, with this possibly his best performance, certainly his most frightening, except for the unintentional comic moments when he fails to catch the children, his animal-like howls, and his pathetic capitulation at the climax. Shelly Winters performance is hammy and heavy handed. The character is unbelievably naïve, She says, "My body is a-quivering all over with cleanliness," when Powell lies to her about his past. Silent screen legend Lillian Gish does a good but hammy job as the "good Christian," the angelic Rachel Cooper, however the character is a little unbelievable with frequent soliloquys to the camera. The main characters are the children, John and Pearl, and they are relatively unmemorable, just OK in my opinion.
In my opinion, Night of the Hunter is a unique film that explored lots of new ideas, however, it has unfairly gained in stature with the passing years, becoming a cult phenomenon. With a tighter story and direction emphasizing the evil Harry Powell, Laughton would have had a horror film more famous than Psycho. As it is,Night of the Hunter is guilty of promising more than it can deliver in the finale, which proves to be tepid. Still, it is a movie worth seeing, especially for Robert Mitchum fans and film buffs.
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