“Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin'.”
The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest made films of all time- this is not just my opinion you will hear this no matter where you read or hear about it. I do believe this is one of the greatest made films of all time I was stunned watching it. Classic films like The Night of the Hunter always make me question what happened to the quality movie making since that time.
A man named Ben Harper has just robbed a bank of ten thousand dollars. He raced home before the police where his children are outside playing. He makes his son John and daughter Pearle swear never to tell anyone he has hidden the money inside Pearle’s doll. The police come and arrest Ben and he is eventually put on death row because he killed two people during the robbery.
While in jail, Ben is cellmates with a “preacher” named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Ben talks in his restless sleep about the money. Harry tries to be conscientious and asks Ben where he hid the money. Harry never does learn where the robber hid the money but once he is out of jail he quickly makes his way to Ben’s hometown, wife Willa (Shelley Winters), and children. Right away Harry begins his quest for the money but John is very tight lipped and keeps reminding his sister they made a promise to their father.
In time Harry convinces Willa to marry him. She quickly becomes a religious fanatic trying to purge her soul. All he does is ask the children where the money is but they will never give it up. Harry is a killer he kills women he finds to be immoral and sexual. He feels he has a right to keep these women because God killed people in the Bible. He kills Willa because she heard him asking Pearle and John where the money is. She does not put up a fight when Harry kills her.
Harry convinces the town that Willa ran off but John knows better. He knows Harry is just after the money. John decides in order to survive and for the truth not to be revealed he and Pearle must runaway. It is not easy to get away. They manage to lock Harry in the basement but he gets out and chases them. John and Pearle run to a boat just in time before the fake preacher gets to them. They sail for days down river stopping only very quickly in places to sleep and get food from. Harry is following the river on horseback.
One night after narrowly escaping from Harry’s sight, the boat drifts ashore near a house owned by a woman name Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). Rachel takes in children who have no place to go. She is very nice to Pearle and John but she does not push them for where they came from or why they are running away. She believes John when he says his parents are dead.
Harry eventually finds them at Rachel’s but she immediately catches his phoniness and pulls a shot gun on him. All night Rachel stays on the porch with her gun. But Harry disappears after she gets distracted.
This was Charles Laughton’s only film he ever directed. Laughton created a visually stunning and thrilling film that would have taken years for any other director to master. As a stage actor and director he knew how to work with light and how important it was for the story. The lighting and the deep cavernous, bare sets are thrilling they add so much suspense.
Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell was creepy. He had that deep twang to his voice and with all his religious fanaticism babble. He was just creepy he was not scary just creepy. Harry was sinister and evil, even when he was not around his eerie presence can be felt.
The story is mostly told through the eyes of John. Having the view of evil through the point of is very suspenseful and scary. You really do feel bad for John he is trying to protect something his father told him not to tell anyone about as well as protect his sister.
This was the first time I have ever seen Lillian Gish in a film. I loved her character she was so good. I loved her toughness, right off the bat when she finds John and Pearle in the boat she starts ordering them out and smacks them with some kind of brush. I cannot wait to sit through her silent films now.
So much has been said and written about The Night of the Hunter that if I were to post here it would just be copying and repeating. If you are very interested in the film read these posts from the excellent blog Film Noir of the Week.
I liked The Night of the Hunter visually but story wise I was not too impressed. I appreciated the Biblical symbolism and all the repressed sexuality but there was something about it that I could not really get into. To me this is more of a visually incredible film.
If you call yourself a film fan in any sense you must see The Night of the Hunter.