The Best Movie Critic + thriller

The Night of the Hunter

Justin here concluding The Movie Advocate's look at horror movies this month with what is probably my favorite movie of all time, The Night of the Hunter.

Supernatural movies give most people the spooks. Personally I love those movies, but the supernatural stuff never gets under my skin like things that are actually plausible. That's why I'm more of a Val Lewton fan than a Universal monsters fan. The Night of the Hunter is an absolutely terrifying thriller. In the opening of the movie, we see Peter Graves as a career ne'er-do-well running from the cops with an armload of money that he entrusts to his young son, telling him to never let anyone know about it. The cops take Graves to jail where his cellmate is the completely unhinged Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum. Powell makes it his goal that once he is paroled to seduce Graves' wife and figure out where the money was hidden.
Robert Mitchum plays one of the screen's best villains here. He poses as a preacher with his own weird brand of Christianity. He has “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles to tell the story of “left hand vs. right hand”: the left/sinister hand of Cain fighting the right hand, love. Love, he says, always wins. Harry Powell travels the countryside seducing widowers and swindling them out of their money. Like in all good thrillers or horrors with kids, none of the adults seem to realize this while the children do. Director Charles Laughton also injects Mitchum's character with a weird sexual frustration that was revolutionary at the time.

This was the only movie directed by Charles Laughton, a great actor in his own right. Legend has it he hated working with children, so Robert Mitchum had to direct the the two children in this movie, John and Pearl Harper. Laughton masterfully conveys how children see the world. There are equal parts dream-like wonder and hyper-real visceral terror. The film is shot in black and white with the loving care of a film noir: a perfect match for the moody emotive performances from Mitchum and Shelley Winters. There's a sequence about halfway through the movie where the children float down a river on a boat surrounded by benevolent forest creatures to run from the preacher. At the same time, it is both beautiful and haunting and oddly comforting.

Tension and suspense comes through the relationship between the preacher and the children. Throughout, the preacher stalks the children and abuses their mother's trust to try to get them to spill the detail about the money their dad stole. In particular, the suspense is kept at a boil because Pearl, the daughter is too young and naïve to see Powell for what he is. John, the son walks a fine line of protecting Pearl from Powell while trying to keep her blissfully ignorant. The precarious balance here is testament to the script by James Agee. Agee's only other produced screenplay was the brilliant African Queen. Unfortunately, Agee died shortly after that movie was produced.

There are very few movies that feel as alive, immediate, and menacing as The Night of the Hunter. It's like lightning on celluloid. Laughton understood completely how to get the most out of the visual parts of film. Nothing here is accidental, no shot is less than perfect. It sounds like hyperbole, but it earns its place in film school canon. It's a movie that people who are serious about movies need to see. Criterion is re-releasing this movie next month and restoring it to the original wide screen aspect ratio it had. Up until now, it has only been available as a bare bones full screen release. This is the perfect time to discover or re-discover one of the scariest and best movies ever made.

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