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Ever wondered where the knuckle tattoo craze came from? You know, the 'LOVE' on one hand and 'HATE' on the other? Well, this 1955 film is the instigator for that, and for the influences of many future directors. Charles Laughton may have only ever directed this one film, as it wasn't very popular by audiences or critics on its initial release, but as time wore on, other directors saw it for the excellent piece of work it was and have taken their cue from it. As such, it has developed a cult status and is regarded as one of the best films of all time, making it into the top 100 of Empire's best 500 films of all time back in 2008.
In working my way through the list they have compiled, I have come across a few gems I just never would have bothered watching, to be honest. This is certainly one of them. Robert Mitchum headlines as self professed preacher Harry Powell, who is no more than a small time crook with a vicious evil streak. Thrown in jail for a minor offence, he finds himself in the same cell as Ben Harper, just another poor soul fed up with the balance of rich and poor who has stolen a small fortune. Jailed without anyone finding the money, Harper meets an untimely demise without revealing its location, and under the pretence of wishing to care for Harper's widowed family, he is all smiles and kind words.
However, we know his true morals, and all he wants is the money. Stopping at nothing to find it, he terrorises Harper's two children, John and Pearl, and soon becomes one of cinema's most evil villains. What's clever about the way it's all filmed though, is that other than the two children, no one knows anything other than the kind and sweet hearted preacher he pretends to be. It's a display of the power of religion in the mid 1930s when this is set, with the townsfolk showing nothing other than awe and admiration for the supreme religious figure they see in front of them. He's all lies and false promises, and no amount of distrust from the children works - everyone sees it as them being rude to a man who is trying to help them followed the death of their father.
But Laughton makes sure he builds it up very well. The use of music was a powerful tool in many black and white 1950s films, as it was before the advent of some of the visual special effects that we see so often in today's films. From dynamic and spine chilling strings, to the gentle horns that combat it, there are a few occasions where you stare transfixed at the screen, the eyes of Mitchum and the power of the music combining for a haunting effect that leaves you almost hating this man, despite his appearance as a religious figure.
Despite the direction being very good indeed, it really is the cast that wins in this film. Shelley Winters plays an effective role as a widow needing to look after two young children and having only an evil man for comfort, despite him weeding his way into her life to start with by using kind words and gentle gestures. the two young stars playing John and Pearl show natural ability and are adorable, while the casting of the townsfolk, and in particular that of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) is very thorough and well chosen. But Robert Mitchum steals the show. Many have said that it was this film that cemented him as one of the swing actors of his time, able to play either type of character but excelling at the villain. There's something mesmerising about how he draws others in, controls a scene and dominates effortlessly. The long drawn face belies cunning, and in this film at least, he is able to project a face of kindness and heroism, then switch to vicious and violence and evil without seemingly any effort at all.
It all joins together very well, and makes for an exciting end. The vast majority of the film goes along at a gentle pace, and on a couple of occasions it slows to a point where you wish it would speed up somewhat. It does appear as if Laughton feels he needs to tell the tale a bit more before delivering the conclusion, although the running time of an hour and a half or so doesn't show this. It shows that the content is not actually that deep. There are few characters, a quick preamble to set the scene, and then the rest is simple - he gets in, tries to get what he wants - followed by a quick conclusion. Basic stuff, done well for the most part, without too much depth being included.
By today's standards, this sort of film would need to have some high level of visual art, or a deeper element to the plot. The music and individual acting ability wouldn't necessarily have been enough. but what we must do is take things in context. the stark black and white nature of the film adds to the atmosphere, and it's a powerful film. I can see why it has been included in Empire's list, and it's certainly one worth watching. Recommended.
The Night Of The Hunter DVD
Film only review.
Actors: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden
Directors: Robert Mitchum, Charles Laughton, Terry Sanders
Writers: Charles Laughton, Davis Grubb, James Agee
Producers: Paul Gregory
Number of discs: 1
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
DVD Release Date: 19 Mar 2001
Run Time: 93 minutes
Year the film was made- 1955
I have been meaning to write about this movie for some time ever since the superb film reviewer on Dooyoo- "Gentle Genius" introduced me to it a while ago. I can honestly say that in all my years of watching films, and there have been many, I have never seen anything quite like this. I love it! So much so that every returning child that visits home has been subjected to it with mixed responses. One said- "Bazaar", the other- "Incredible." Whatever your opinion if you watch this you will witness a very unique series of events that makes the famous "Tales of The Riverbank" kiddies series look like its tame sister. I would describe this film as an evil fairy tale- a nightmare for children!
Brief outline of The Plot
The film is set in the deep south of the USA in the 1930s in West Virginia. Robert Mitchum plays a superb role as a wicked man who presents himself as a preacher (Harry Powell) and gains respect from all he encounters. With "HATE" tattooed on one set of knuckles and "LOVE" on the other he is somewhat strange. He worms his way into the arms of a recently widowed mother of two, in order to seek out the whereabouts of some stolen money. This was left behind by the late husband who committed a robbery before his subsequent conviction and untimely end. The fact that the so called preacher was prosecuted for car theft and landed in jail in the same cell as the husband is rather key to what happens as events unfold.
Oh my goodness does this set the scene for a bizarre set of circumstances as Mitchum seeks out the money at every turn. He is truly terrifying and in particular he seeks out information from the two children in the family - one of which is the most gorgeous pigtailed little girl who he terrorises at every opportunity.
Enough of the plot as there are twists and turns at every opportunity, and to discover what happens requires an inexpensive purchase- only £2.99 with free delivery from Amazon! Also it is important to state that the film scores 8.2 on IMDB, which is testament to its level of appreciation, and Amazon reviews are touching 4.5 out of 5. This is no surprise to me as I think it is being rewarded for its unique presentation. There is no doubt in the thriller genre we see today so many plots resemble others, there is nothing like this I can promise you!
I can tell you that love or hate the film you will witness a drama unfolding which is so unique in its presentation that it has left imprints in my mind and will yours. Some of the scenes are just so thought provoking and dark, and the acting is absolutely brilliant. Shelly Winters plays a superb role as the mother who falls for the preacher with considerable encouragement from the neighbours, who see him as God's representative, putting him on a pedestal way above the clouds!
You have to remember the era that this film represents, and the setting, which is also far from city life and modern times. The costumes are certainly chosen with the era, the geography, and the religious extremism that prevailed at the time. It's all high necks and smart attire, especially so in the children who represent almost a Victorian look. This adds to the atmosphere and the believability. The little girl - Pearl is a delightful four year old, curly locked and rosy cheeked, and who is a picturesque vision of innocence as she plays with her doll on the steps of her picket fenced home.
You have to take certain things at face value and refrain from being over-critical as it is what it is, and in today's fast moving and highly sophisticated film making world it would be ripped to shreds. However there is something so macabre and eerie about this film that really haunts you long after the drama is over.
The stand out scenes for me have to be the wedding night which was superbly acted, and certainly the children escaping from the clutches of the priest down the river is absolutely incredible, but here you must refrain from being overcritical and see it for what is it. It would be easy to say this lacks credibility, but you have to go with the flow to appreciate fully the message and the atmosphere. To some extent you have to transport yourself back in time before you even press play, as this is a film steeped in history, and to appreciate it you have to see the era in black and white. A simple time when transport was on horseback, and when religion was ingrained in every part of your being, preventing common sense from prevailing and replacing it with idolism and ridiculous hero worship.
The music is incredible and hauntingly beautiful and adds to the atmosphere. This is evident from the first moments of the film and carries through all the scenes building tension and imparting fear.
The images in this film are so picturesque, the actions dark and evil, and to some extent this reflects the love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of the wicked priest, The river is serene and home to wildlife, and yet beneath the dreamy ebb and flow of the current lies a dark secret. The houses are picket fenced and have cottage gardens and reflect days spent picking daisies and the innocence of childhood. It is all designed to frame horror and evil with a sugar coating.
I love this film. It sits in my top 10 without a doubt. It will leave a lasting impression- the night sky bathed in stars, the simple life, childhood days and simple pleasures all mixed up with greed and hate and criminal motives hidden behind a façade of holiness.
Final Point-There are no extras on this DVD but that matters not- the film doesn't need any explanation or elaboration. It leaves a trail of mystery in its wake.
This review is also published on Ciao under my user name Violet1278.
RELEASED: 1955, Cert.12
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 92 mins
DIRECTOR: Charles Laughton
PRODUCER: Paul Gregory
SCREENPLAY: James Agee & Charles Laughton
MUSIC: Walter Schumann
Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell
Billy Chapin as John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl Harper
Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
Lilian Gish as Rachel Cooper
James Gleason as Birdie Steptoe
Peter Graves as Ben Harper
FILM ONLY REVIEW
The setting is a small, rural community in West Virginia during the 1930s.
Ben Harper, who has just robbed a bank, is desperate to hide the money before being arrested, so he stuffs it inside his little girl's doll, swearing both her (Pearl) and her older brother John to secrecy regarding the whereabouts of the money. The police arrive, and John and Pearl, together with their mother Willa, fearfully watch as Ben is taken away by the police.
In jail, doomed to execution and whilst waiting to go to the gallows, Ben shares a cell with fake preacher and car thief, Harry Powell. During conversation between the two men, Harry becomes convinced that the money Ben made from the bank robbery is still with his family, hidden somewhere.
After Ben's execution, Harry is released from prison and he makes his way to the Harper household, with a view to finding out where the money is stashed so that he can take it for himself.
Remembering something that Ben had muttered in his sleep, Harry correctly guesses that children Pearl and John know the whereabouts of the money, so he begins his campaign of attempting to win the children's confidence in the hope that they will tell him what he wants to know. Harry feels that the best way to make the children trust him is to woo their mother. The lonely, vulnerable widow surrenders, hoping for salvation through marrying Harry, who she truly believes is a deeply religious man and a preacher.
As soon as the wedding is over and Harry takes his place as man of the house, things start to change as the true magnitude of his loathsome personality spews forth....all he is interested in is getting his hands on the money, and he is prepared to try any trick in the book to get the children to reveal the secret their father made them promise to keep forever.
That sets the basic scene, and to find out what happens, you must watch the film yourself.
The Night Of The Hunter was filmed in black and white. I'm uncertain as to whether for effect, or simply due to budget restraints, but that for me does add an extra dimension which I feel quite likely would be lacking had the movie been shot in colour.
This is one of many interesting films that were released and were making their way around the cinemas during the early to mid-1950s. Sometimes I can perceive these films to be an attempt at creating a popularist off to the side art-noir category, but if that is so, I overall feel the British were more successful with their productions. However, The Night Of The Hunter contains all the ingredients for one of these types of movies, despite it being lightly peppered here and there with what I personally call 'pretty-ism'.
The acting from the two child characters is surprisingly good, especially that of the young Billy Chapin in his role as John Harper, and I find it refreshing to see a youthful Shelley Winters play a role that isn't a sassy, flirtatious, blousy type woman. She handled the part of naïve widow Willa Harper with just the right balance between confused yet caring mother, and a somewhat gullible individual who falls under the spell of an initially smooth-talking ex-con.
Lilian Gish is pretty good as Rachel Cooper, but I feel it would be unfair of me to explain her character in the film, as I'd personally consider such to be a spoiler. However, I would like to have seen Rachel Cooper's character expanded outwards somewhat, as I'd have liked to know how she came to be in the position she was in, and learn a bit about her background.
The crowning glory in The Night Of The Hunter is definitely Robert Mitchum's sinister, chilling portrayal of the despicable Harry Powell. I really don't think anybody else could have acted the part better, and this role allowed Mitchum to make full use of his ability to create some interesting facial expressions, completely befitting that of a psychopathic con-man. There is something very matter-of-fact about Harry Powell....a smooth operator on the surface, yet a heart of stone lurks not too far underneath. He has the gift of the gab, even managing to explain the words 'love' and 'hate' tattooed on his fingers away in such a way that he manipulates people into believing his fake religious convictions are genuine.
The music to The Night Of The Hunter is quite good in the sense that it does fit into the mood of the film rather neatly, but by modern day standards it could be considered a bit over the top, perhaps coming across as intrusive....but, that was the style of film scores in the 1950s and is perfectly acceptable so long as viewers transport themselves back into that era and not make unfair comparisons to modern-day cinematic styles.
There are one or two little parts of The Night Of The Hunter which I find very slightly amusing in tongue-in-cheek fashion, yet I'm not certain if they were intended to be so....maybe I just have an odd sense of humour? However and overall, I do find Robert Mitchum's input to be not creepy or frightening as such, but nicely sinister....he did scare the hell out of me when I very first saw the film at around age 9 or so....now in time I simply see it as a darned good, well-acted piece of entertainment.
I believe that anybody who likes something a little bit - not a lot, but a little - menacing and is able to accept filming techniques, styles etc. from another era without being bored or thinking such is old-fashioned, would really enjoy The Night Of The Hunter, even if it is just to witness Robert Mitchum's outstanding performance. It's certainly one of my all-time favourite films which, so long as I leave a reasonable length of time in between viewings, I can go back to again and again and again.
At the time of writing, Night Of The Hunter can be purchased on Amazon as follows:-
New: from £2.86 to £39.99
Used: from £1.73 to £9.99
A delivery charge of £1.26 should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
1930s West Virginia: A bogus preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who has been secretly murdering wealthy widows, finds himself in a cell with a robber, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), convicted to hang. Harper has confided the location of the money he stole to his son, John (Billy Chapin), but mutters a verse from the Bible in his sleep that gives Powell a clue. Upon his release, Powell tracks down Harper's widow, woos her, marries her and kills her. However, in order to get the secret stash he needs to convince young John and his sister to tell him. The hunt begins...
According to perhaps the most successful horror writer in history, Stephen King, "Night of the Hunter" is one of the greatest examples of classic horror cinema. Over at least a decade I have periodically trudged through the list of horror literature and horror films King provided in his non-fiction book on the horror genre, "Danse Macabre", and in several unusual instances I had to agree with his conclusions. For example, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" is a contentious entry, as many might not agree it is an obvious horror picture. I feel that it has all the hallmarks of American gothic horror. Just because it doesn't conform to the most common ideas of horror doesn't make it not a horror film. However, I have to disagree with his verdict on the original "Night of the Hunter". I have problems defining as a horror film or a standout classic. This is despite it containing elements of the horror genre and also an interesting premise along with a good and edgy performance by Robert Mitchum.
The 1950s were a bad time for horror films on the whole. In fact, when I made my list of the 10 best horror films and decided to restrict myself to one move per decade I had to break my rule. There were simply much better horror films before and after the 1950s to justify even putting in Hammer Horror's excellent productions of "Dracula" and "The Curse of Frankenstein" (although "Dracula" was a very close call). It was a great era for science fiction crossovers and I loved "The Fly", but this just seemed to be just one example of a minor classic film that wasn't as important or good as its re-make (see 1951's "The Thing" for another example). Anyway, most listings of great 1950s horrors don't even consider "Night of the Hunter". So what made King champion its importance so much? And why is it considered such a classic as to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the US Library of Congress? It was a question that haunted me through my first and only viewing of the picture when I finally got around to watching it.
First up, the setting is pretty good. The Deep South of the USA has long since become a popular setting for modern horror movies. I have observed a lot of fear directed to these southern states by the more industrialized and liberal northern states. To many it conjures up prejudiced images of vast empty spaces and backwards people high on intolerance and religiosity. Horror works when it cuts straight into primal fears and brings us close to chaos. The Deep South has been used to do this in numerous "Hill Billy" horrors and supernatural films, but this film fits into neither of these categories. Instead we are given an Elmer Gantry type of avarice motivated killer "preacher" who tracks down true innocence in the form of the two children. The idea is fairly powerful and perhaps the reason why the film's basis, the thriller novel of the same name, won so much critical acclaim.
Next the film falls under the direction of the great actor Charles Laughton (his only directorial effort). Laughton apparently drew a lot of his inspiration from the German impressionist movement (think "Nosferatu", "Faust" and "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari"). This pervading silent era eeriness is probably what Stephen King picked up on. It is creepy in parts, particularly in the film's final act, as Robert Mitchum and his elderly antagonist unite in a hymn whilst he stalks her property and she defends it with a shotgun.Finally we have Robert Mitchum performance - the great actor trumping his other heart-throb contemporaries by taking on a truly edgy role. He plays understated menace that would not be rivalled until the days of Pacino and De Niro over a decade later.
So, the ingredients and the respected acclaim are all there. Why do I find myself not agreeing? Quite simply the film doesn't build momentum well. The scenes that should inspire horror are few and far between and don't have enough impact to get the heart racing. Against any of Hitchcock's thrillers of the time, "Night of the Hunter" is no match. Whereas Hitchcock could draw out and distract viewers for incredible lengths of time before bringing in the suspense and shocks, "Night of the Hunter" scores near misses - Mitchum's odd hysterical scream towards the end - and is anticlimactic. The film's epilogue, for example, seems like a protracted moral lesson and only further confirms the relatively uneventful feel of the picture. It's a real shame, as I want to love it, but in the end it just felt like a very good episode of The Waltons after Friedrich Murnau got his hands on it.
It's certainly worth watching for the positive reasons I have outlined and maybe to get something from it that was clearly lost on me. "Night of the Hunter" is a disturbing drama with a standout performance from Robert Mitchum and wonderful neo-expressionist stylization ideas from Charles Laughton. However, a classic horror movie it is not.
There are a lot of films that we now consider classics that were largely ignored upon their release. 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'It's a Wonderful Life' were not the box office smashes that you may have expected; instead they needed repeats on TV to gather momentum over the decades. You could consider that as long as these classics are eventually uncovered that everything is fine, but what of the people who made the film? The director and stars may have gone unnoticed during their prime because it took so long for the films to flourish. In the case of Charles Laughton his one directorial effort was his last as 'Night of the Hunter' was a commercial failure and suffered mixed reviews. He never directed again as the heartache was too much to bear, yet the film is now considered a classic. Does the film deserve praise so many years after it flopped, or was Laughton right to hang up his director's chair?
A mysterious Preacher, Harry Powell, enters town one day. He is unusual in many ways, not least the Love/Hate tattoos that adorn his knuckles. However, his God fearing words and passionate beliefs soon win the town over and the heart of young widow Willa Harper. Her late husband was executed after killing someone during a bank robbery, but the stash was never found. Rumour has it that the money is hidden somewhere on Willa's land and perhaps she or one of her two children, John and Pearl, know where it is? What is Powell's reason for marrying Willa? Is he really the gentle giant that he claims to be?
'Night of the Hunter' is an eccentric film noir and this is in a genre that has more than it's fair share of slightly off centre films (see the work of Robert Aldrich). It is the powerhouse performance of Robert Mitchum as the disturbed Preacher that drives the film forwards and makes it stick in people's minds. The tale he tells of Love and Hate with the use of his tattoos has gone down in film history. Mitchum is excellent in the film; especially for the first two thirds as he is a foreboding character. The dark nature of the performance is only enhanced by the fact it is two small children that he is after.
The roles of the youngsters are played reasonably well, although a little American Pie at times for my liking. They are somewhat shown up later in the film when they meet other children who are perhaps better actors. However, it is the naivety of the actors that gives the characters such vulnerability and enhances the sense of fear as they have no chance against such a powerful man.
For around an hour 'Night of the Hunter' is amongst the best crime noir of the era. For a first time director Laughton used all his experience as an actor to get a great performance out of his lead and shoot some wonderful angles. However, about half way through the film makes a shift in tone and is all the worse for it. Suddenly the film becomes a chase movie and Mitchum's role become decidedly unhinged in a bizarre manner. He now whoops and stumbles like a man possessed, the once dark menace becomes almost clown like. The film also concentrates more on the children and they are just not strong enough presence for the film to work. For the last part of the film I felt it was almost farcical and it undermined the good that went before.
With its poor conclusion I don't feel that 'Night of the Hunter' should really be considered a classic other than for Robert Mitchum's early performance in the film. The strange twist that the film takes has to go down as director Laughton's problem and is perhaps why he was unable to work again in the role. This is a shame as the early promise is there with some of the darkest and most interesting imagery of the time. In the end 'Night of the Hunter' is as memorable as a strange experiment as it is classic noir.
Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters
Price: Amazon uk £4.97
CD Wow £11.99
Another light disc of a classic film, the print is decent, but there is only the original trailer in terms of true extras.
Controversially, I did not enjoy Night of the Hunter. Perhaps I was not in the right mood, but the film did not engage me at all.
The plot of the film is simple enough; Robert Mitchum plays an evil preacher who, while in jail, learns of a sum of stolen money being protected by his cellmate's children. He then proceeds to insinuate himself into the lives of the children in an effort to find out where it's hidden. Cue a chase across the country as the children flee the murderous preacher.
Sounds exciting. It isn't. The film has dated badly, and though it was shot well I found my attention wandering periodically. The message of the film seemed to be 'Adults are insane and/or stupid, run away from them' - though by this point I found myself caring less and less about the message.
The only redeeming quality is the calibre of Robert Mitchum's acting; he is always a joy to watch. Though personally I would recommend Cape Fear rather than this.
Sadly, this was Charles Laughton's only film as a director - its box office failings shattered his confidence, leaving him with no desire to direct ever again. It is often considered the greatest film by someone who only directed a single film, and rightly so, with the possible exception of Jean Vigo. The Night of the Hunter is one of the most mystical and suspenseful films ever produced by Hollywood.
This depression era film follows a false preacher, Harry Powell (played by the great Robert Mitchum), as he attempts to steal money from two children whose father was arrested and left a bag full of cash for the boy to take resposibility and keep hold of until their adulthood has been reached. The first two thirds or so of the film shows Powell's escapades and fearsome doings as he marries the mother of the two children (who is unaware of the money), then slowly installs fear into the boy whilst trying to get Pearl, the girl, on his side. I shalln't spoil any more of the plot, but I will say that the third act focuses on a foster mother who cares for the children and protects them from Powell.
Laughton's direction, along with film critic Agee's screenplay, create several moments of pure fear - a particularly memorable scene is when Powell sits outside whistling all night whilst Rachel Cooper, the kind carer, looks sits with a shotgun in her hands. The silhouette of Powell under the street lamp creates an iconic shot. Also memorable is Powell's tatoo's on his hands: "LOVE" and "HATE". This further gives the audience a feeling of helplessness as the townsfolk are either completely ignorant or unaware of the possibility of Powell having ulterior motives or are too cowardly to do anything about it.
Often seen as Mitchum's best performance, Powell is a character that lingers long in the memory and helps to cement The Night of The Hunter as not only a unique Hollywood classic but also a reminder of the potential lost through Laughton's talents behind the chair.
Robert Mitchum as 'Reverend' Harry Powell
Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
Peter Graves as Ben Harper
Lilian Gish as Rachel Cooper
Billy Chapin as John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl Harper
This is simply one of the very greatest films ever made - no review can ever do it justice so I don't know why I'm even trying, but I want so much to encourage you to seek out this highly unusual and absorbing classic movie.
The only movie directed by the acclaimed actor Charles Laughton, it is a pity that he didn't direct more - this 1955 film is a masterpiece of psychological suspense with a very 'Film Noir'-ish feel, beautifully photographed with excellent use of light and shadow, directed in a style that borders on the mystical and surreal, a real work of art.
And, it is the film that features the legendary iconic demented preacher who has 'Love' and 'Hate' tattooed on his knuckles and makes a profession of bumping off widows who have a bit of cash stashed away.
The story takes place in a small rural American town in the 1930s. It will draw you in from the very start, with its fantasy scene of elderly farmer Rachel Cooper superimposed upon a background of the heavens, giving a gentle Bible lesson to a group of smiling children, then segueing straight to 'Preacher' Harry Powell in his old jalopy, having his own rather different dialogue with The Lord: 'There are things you do hate, Lord - perfumed things, lacey things, things with curly hair', and muttering about there being 'a lot of killin' in the Bible'...
Cut to Harry at a sleazy strip joint, getting more and more agitated as he watches the woman onstage - out comes his hand with the knuckles famously tattooed 'Hate' and then his concealed switchblade knife springs open and the blade pops out through his jacket. 'There are too many of them,' Harry mutters upwards to The Lord. 'You can't kill the WORLD.' Creepy.
Harry suddenly receives a tap on his shoulder - it is a policeman, and he is arrested for theft of the car he had been driving. Harry does jail time for this, sharing a cell with Ben Harper who has committed murder in the process of stealing a large sum of money. Just before his arrest, Ben had hidden the money, the location of which no one has been able to get him to tell. Harry tries to pry this information out of Ben, but to no avail.
Learning of Harry's rather dodgy past, Ben asks him 'What religion do you profess, Preacher?' 'The religion the Almighty and I worked out betwixt us,' Harry replies through clenched teeth, twirling his switchblade knife which he had been able to smuggle into jail.
On being released after Ben has been executed for his crime, Harry decides to look up Ben's family, hopeful of ingratiating himself with the newly-made widow Willa and finding out where the money's hidden. He is successful at winning Willa over, and they marry. But after a short time, wedded bliss fades away as, frustrated at finding that his new family claim that they do not know anything about the money or where it is, Harry begins a campaign of terror towards Willa and her children...
The acting in this film consists of what are probably the best performances of every one of the cast's careers. A very young Peter Graves (Mr Phelps from the old 'Mission Impossible' TV series) only makes a brief appearance, as Ben, but is still memorable. The little boy and girl who play Willa and Ben's children John and Pearl are amazing actors, displaying maturity way beyond their years in depicting their resourcefulness at outsmarting Harry Powell when he turns on them. Lillian Gish is compelling as feisty old Rachel Cooper who takes in stray children and also packs a real wallop with a shotgun.
Even minor characters are so well drawn that they stick in the mind long after viewing the film. The piece de resistance of the acting performances, though, is of course Robert Mitchum having a field day as the thoroughly deranged homicidal 'reverend'. The image of Harry Powell on horseback sillhouetted against the night sky, singing his favourite hymn ('Leaning, leaning / Leaning on the everlasting arms...') while hunting for young escapees John and Pearl with the intention of killing them, is one that you never forget.
The film's sense of atmosphere is equally breathtaking, with superb sharp black & white photography of a rural Depression-era America, brilliant use of darkness and shadows, and beautifully-done artistic surreal/fantasy effects. This is a film that really HAD to be made in black & white - in colour, it could not have had the overwhelmingly Noir visual impact, so its being in black and white is not a detriment but instead sets the content off perfectly.
All things considered, if I were a filmmaker, this movie is what I would aspire
to. Even though it was made in 1955, it is just as watchable today. I've watched it countless times from childhood to the present, and am now pleased to own a copy on DVD, as I am sure I will view it countless more times.
It is a true masterpiece and if you love great films, you will probably not only never forget this one but will want to see it again sooner rather than later.
Also on ciao.co.uk as threddragon and ciao.com as EsmeraldaDragon.
'The Night Of The Hunter' was made in 1955 and is always highly regarded whenever I look at polls of the greatest ever films etc, so I decided to see what I thought of it. To my mind it absolutely deserves its reputation as a film classic with wonderfully eerie black and white photography and a stunning central performance from Robert Mitchum.
Mitchum plays Harry Powell a self appointed preacher. He is only a preacher in respect of the clothes he wears and passages from the Bible he quotes. He is far from what he seems. The audience is given suspicion early on, by the way his character behaves and acts, that this is no ordinary preacher. He drives his car and talks to God in a conversational style rather than prayer.
Whilst in prison for a minor offence, Powell meets Ben Harper, a robber who is to be hanged for killing 2 men and stealing 10,000 dollars. Harper has given the stolen loot to his 2 children John and Pearl and hidden the money in Pearl's rag doll. John, being the eldest child and fiercely loyal to his father takes an oath that he will never reveal the whereabouts of the money to anyone.
Powell becomes obsessed with finding the 10,000 dollars and upon his release from prison he worms his way into the Harper's small town community, pulling the wool over the eyes of the locals and Harper's widow Willa [a fine performance by Shelley Winters]. He ends up marrying Willa, and from something Harper had said in his sleep in the prison cell, Powell has worked out that the children know where the money is.
So begins the cat and mouse game between Powell and the children as he tries to get them to tell him where the money is.
The children flee and are taken in by a kindly spinster Rachel Cooper, played by veteran of the silent screen Lillian Gish. This builds to an exciting climax between Gish and Mitchum's character.
As the preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on each hand, Mitchum gives one of cinema's greatest performances of evil ever. Mitchum is a more complex psycho than film audiences to this point had been used to. In today's films its common for the bad guy to be cunning and deceitful to get what he wants. But this is an early high watermark for that sort of performance.
The film has clearly influenced much of what has come after, my knowledge of films of this period is a little sketchy so I can't really talk about German expressionism, but suffice to say this film brought many European art house influences to a Hollywood film, and consequently a bigger audience. Watch out for a really evocative underwater scene which the film is famous for.
Director Charles Laughton was a highly respected Oscar winning film and stage actor and this was his first attempt at film direction. It is said that his dismay at the poor reception the film received at the time led to him never directing a film again, although he only lived another 7 years after this film was released.
Shelley Winters performance in this film is similar to the one she gives in 'Lolita' and she plays the buxom housewife very well. Lillian Gish is also great in her role. But there's no doubt that this is Mitchum's film with his towering central performance, the kind of thing that should have won an Oscar but didn't because it was just a bit too far ahead of everything.
A stunning piece of work and well worth buying on dvd. It can be bought for around £5 on Amazon or Play, probably closer to £10 in the shops. But there is nothing on the dvd aside from a trailer and scene selection/subtitles. That doesn't really matter though as the film stands up on its own just fine.
(film only review)
A group of children playing hide-and-seek on a farm find a dead woman lying in a barn.
A preacher, Rev. Harry Powell, (Robert Mitchum) is driving along country roads, singing hymns and talking to God. There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair. And then, God, Im tired, there are too many of them, I cant kill the world.
A man, Ben Harper, (Peter Graves) comes running to his house clutching 10.000 $ in his hand, hes just robbed a bank, killed two people and must hide the money before the police come. He stuffs it into his daughters doll and makes the children swear not to tell anyone, not even their mother. I got tired of seein' children roamin' the woodlands without food, children roamin' the highways in this here Depression, children sleepin' in old abandoned car bodies in junk heaps. And I promised myself that I'd never see the day when my young-uns had want.
This unusual way of providing for the childrens future takes him straight to the gallows, of course, during his last days he shares a cell with the preacher whos been condemned to 40 days in prison for car theft. The latter finds out that the money is still hidden and he decides to do what hes good at once hes out of prison and his cell mate has been hanged. He sucks his way into the hearts of the people of Willa Harpers village, wins her and her little girl over - nine-year-old John remains stubborn and hostile. What is going to happen, is clear and Im not spoiling the plot pointing it out, after all, weve known from the beginning that Powell is a homicidal maniac. At the end of the film well learn that Willa Harper is his 25th victim.
He then concentrates on the children. Theyre too young and innocent to fool him for long, especially four-year-old Pearl. When Powell accosts her, Now just tell me. Where's the money hid?, she blurts out, But I swore I promised John I wouldn't tell. When Powell physically attacks the children, he becomes the wolf and they the lambs, they succeed in getting into a boat and escape floating down the river. The question if Powell can get them in the end and what hell do to them if he does, gives the film its suspense, but it is not only this that makes it outstanding, its the way its made that does.
Director Charles Laughton had it shot in black and white although in 1955 colour was already widely used, but the ominous and menacing atmosphere comes across much better this way. Before the children see Powell, a long shadow announces his approach , a fishermans hook gets stuck and when he peers into the water, he sees Willa Harper sitting in her car, throat cut, with her nightgown floating, her long hair undulating in the water. When the children glide along the nightly river, creatures of the dark watch them from the bank, a big toad is shown in close-up. Ive seen the same in the Italian film I Am Not Scared from 2007, director Gabriele Salvatores also uses close-ups of night creatures to symbolise a boys angst, Im convinced that he got the idea from The Night Of The Hunter. Ive read that many more directors have been influenced by this film, but Im not a cineaste, I dont know many films and therefore cant tell you more.
When the children find shelter in Rachel Coopers (Lillian Gish) house, a pious spinster who takes in orphans, we see an owl sitting in a tree and a rabbit in the garden, then the owl flaps its wings and we hear the shriek of the rabbit. There isnt much scenery or frilly decoration to divert our attention, the shots are well composed and the imagery is thus very impressive. Thinking back, many images come to my mind and I can still feel the eerie atmosphere. Im sure that if I had seen this film as a child, I would have had many sleepless nights!
Robert Mitchum in the role of the fake preacher is brilliant, later in his life he said that Charles Laughton was his favourite director and that The Night Of The Hunter was his favourite movie ever. He was very eager for the role, when he auditioned and Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit", Mitchum promptly answered, Present! Thinking of him his hands come to mind at once with the letters L O V E and H A T E tattooed on the knuckles, wringing his hands dramatically he demonstrates the fight between good and bad and tells his story in a way that his audiences can only gasp. As all the people he meets stare at his hands, he always has an opener for his sermons and hes really good at them.
The two children are also wonderful actors (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), child actors behaving naturally in front of the camera must be especially praised. Laughton despised children and so it fell to Robert Mitchum to direct them, he did it well. Lillian Gishs performance as the embodiment of goodness (in contrast to the preachers evilness) must be praised as well. I dont know how the people in rural America talked in the 1930s, for me the language sounds odd, very stylised, this and the many biblical quotes transport the story away from everyday life.
Unfortunately the spectators in 1955 werent able to appreciate the quality of the film, it flopped critically and commercially, they were shocked and repelled by its phantasmagoric, overheated style in which German expressionism, religious hysteria, fairy-tale fantasy (of the Grimm-est variety), and stalker movie were brought together in a furious boil (amazon.com). Laughton was so disappointed that he vowed never to direct a film again - and he kept his word. Nowadays the film is considered a masterpiece, the only one of its kind.
Recommended if you have a taste for something special.
Runtime 93 min.
Colour: Black and White
Sound Mix: Mono
Certification UK: X (original rating)
RRP 12.99 GBP
Amazon Price 5.97
It's almost impossible to describe the all-embracing weirdness of Charles Laughton's only film as director. Ostensibly a crime film, with Robert Mitchum as a psychopathic preacher / killer hearing from cellmate Peter Graves about some buried loot, and getting out to marry his widow (Shelly Winters) and menace his kids until he finds out where the money is, it has a weird, dreamlike texture, with straight images of nature and light versus the almost supernatural evil represented by Mitchum. All the performances, from the kids, Dorothy Gish as the angelic old lady, and Winters as the doomed wife are excellent, but they're in the shadow of Mitchum, in probably the best role of his career (which is saying something). With love and hate tattooed on his knuckles, prayers on his lips and murder in his heart, he is the very embodiment of evil, whose very presence threatens the existence of innocence as embodied by Gish and the kids. It's very funny for much of the film with very little onscreen threat (but massively implied by the look in Mitchum's eyes), and at the same time, absolutely terrifying. Laughton's direction is like a film-noir fairytale with elements of surrealism. Like I said, hard to describe, but absolutely unique and essential. However you get to see 'Night of the Hunter', do it soon. It's a masterpiece.
In the entire history of American movies, The Night of the Hunter stands out as the rarest and most exotic of specimens. It is, to say the least, a masterpiece--and not just because it was the only movie directed by flamboyant actor Charles Laughton or the only produced solo screenplay by the legendary critic James Agee (who also co-wrote The African Queen). The truth is, nobody has ever made anything approaching its phantasmagoric, overheated style in which German expressionism, religious hysteria, fairy-tale fantasy (of the Grimm-est variety), and stalker movie are brought together in a furious boil. Like a nightmarish premonition of stalker movies to come, Night of the Hunter tells the suspenseful tale of a demented preacher (Robert Mitchum, in a performance that prefigures his memorable villain in Cape Fear), who torments a boy and his little sister--even marries their mixed-up mother (Shelley Winters)--because he's certain the kids know where their late bank-robber father hid a stash of stolen money. So dramatic, primal, and unforgettable are its images--the preacher's shadow looming over the children in their bedroom, the magical boat ride down a river whose banks teem with fantastic wildlife, those tattoos of LOVE and HATE on the unholy man's knuckles, the golden locks of a drowned woman waving in the current along with the indigenous plant life in her watery grave--that they're still haunting audiences (and filmmakers) today. --Jim Emerson, Amazon.com