nightofthehunter.gif
Submitted by: Jeremy Worthen
Release Date: 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Synopsis: Based off the novel by Davis Grubb of the same name, the imprisoned wicked preacher Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum) learns that $10,000 stolen by his soon-to-be executed cellmate have been entrusted to his children. Powell succeeds in seducing Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), his cellmate's widow, and proceeds to murder her and terrorize her children in an attempt to steal the money. The children flee down river until they find the care and protection of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who sees Powell for the deceitful, evil man he is.

Review:
I very much enjoyed The Night of the Hunter, though I was aware of the film's expressionist and fairytale style before watching the film. The use of diegetic song, such as church hymns and lullabies, may be off-putting, as well as the extreme, borderline melodramatic moments such as Harry Powell's grab at the children from the stairs. However, when one is aware of the director's vision, these strange scenes make much more sense. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the film was able to criticize the negative aspects of religion via Robert Mitchum's character (the hive mind, overzealous condemnation, ignorance, external image NightHunter04.jpgand the great possibility of deception and exploitation) while equally underlining the positive aspects through Lillian Gish's Rachel Cooper. The cinematography was absolutely breathtaking. There were numerous images in the film that I wished I could have printed and framed to go on my wall. From the eerie, sacrificial altar-like murder scene, with Mitchum raising his arms while the shadows from the windows create a kind of steeple around him, to John waking up in the barn to see Mitchum's character riding across the horizon on horseback, silhouetted against the rising sun. This film meets many of my qualifications to what makes a truly great film: an excellent and powerful story combined with equally amazing acting (towards the end of the film, Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish seem to be engaged in a game of one-upmanship in terms of their screen pulling abilities), beautiful visuals, and memorable music. The film is characterized by song. Throughout the entire film, except during the initial murder scene through to the children's escape, it seems everyone is singing. Harry Powell is constantly singing church hymns, while Pearl sings lullabies and John's Uncle sings river folk songs. The film is as powerful as it is terrifying, making for an extremely favorable movie experience.

Analysis:
The Night of the Hunter examines the relationship between children and adults, framing the violence and journey of the film through a child's eyes. The film also explores the loss of innocence, thrust upon children by their parent's actions. This is made apparent from the very start of the film when Ben Harper entrusts his young children with $10,000 of stolen money; money that he murdered two men for. Young John is given a responsibility far beyond his age, which he sees to admirably. John's life continues in a downward spiral after he witnesses the arrest of his father followed by his hanging, the derision from his peers and the adults around him over his father's criminal behavior, the intrusion into his life by Harry Powell who then murders his mother and chases him across the state. John only breaks when he relives the trauma that initialized this series of events; when Powell is arrested. As Rachel says near the end of the film, children “abide and endure.” To achieve the childlike feel of the film, many scenes are over exaggerated to make Powell appear far more demonic and sinister; essentially turning him into a cartoon villain. This does not undermine the acting ability of Robert Mitchum, however, nor the directing by Charles Laughton. What this melodrama achieves is the view of a child. Children are prone to exaggeration, to see monsters in their closets. To properly portray this feeling, subtlety is not the correct avenue to explore.
The artistry on display in
The Night of the Hunter is perhaps why it was rejected upon its initial release, but favored by critics in more recent years. The film rises above the status of “thriller” (which, from the plot, it essentially is), to become an extremely memorable film through its acting, music, and vivid images. Other thrillers of the time may have a few cheap scares, but were ultimately forgotten for their lack of relevant or powerful themes. On watching the film a second or even third time, the power is not diminished by knowledge of the outcome. The film's weight centers on its imagery and themes ranging from the very general (good vs. evil) to very specific (mob mentality, female sexuality). The film is also very definitely American in its themes. The Night of the Hunter is set in the Depression era, a time where many children went hungry and were not able to rely on their parents. In this way, the film, while portraying childhood hunger and poverty in a way that can be understood by all cultures, is also a historical piece for Americans. Films like Bonnie and Clyde explore the criminal culture of the Depression, but Night of the Hunter explores what is most important and often forgotten from that time period: the children.



Articles:
Vineberg, Steve. "Review: Enchantment and Terror; the Night of the Hunter." The Threepenny Review.47 (1991): 27-9.
Steve Vineberg offers a very detailed review and analysis of The Night of the Hunter including mentions of the film's inspiration and other films it has inspired. His analysis pays particular attention to the dichotomy between adults and children as shown through the film, concluding that the film is a portrayal of nightmare and adventure through a child's perspective.

Holland, Norman N. "Review: "Agee on Film": Reviewer Re-Viewed; Agee on Film." The Hudson Review 12.1 (1959): 148-51.
This article discusses Night of the Hunter screenwriter, James Agees's concern for realism in film, and notes the realism and poetry of The Night of the Hunter.

Mills, Moylan C."Charles Laughton's Adaptation of the Night of the Hunter." Literature Film Quarterly 16.1 (1988): 49.
Moylan C. Mills' discusses some of the difference between the original novel The Night of the Hunter and the film version, noting how Laughton's use of conflicting extremes (expressionism and realism), vivid imagery, music and many other aspects raise his film far beyond the scope of the novel.

Books:

Jones, Preston N. Heaven and Hell to Play with: The Filming of the Night of the Hunter. First Limelight Edition ed. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc., 2002.
Preston Neal Jones catalogs the creation of The Night of the Hunter from novel to film and its reception through interviews with the stars and crew of the film. He examines the psychology of the film's primary artists, Charles Laughton and Davis Grubb, to explain their inspiration for the story and its dramatic presentation on film.

Stern, Lesley. The Scorsese Connection. London: British Film Institude, 1995.
Page 171 of this book details the film's commercial failure, making it Charles Laughton's first and last film, and also explains how the film came to be regarded as a classic after its many broadcasts on television.


The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies have Portrayed the American Past
. Ed. Peter C. Rollins. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Page 188 in this book claims that The Night of the Hunter captures the “New Deal spirit” of Franklin Roosevelt's administration through its characterization of a simple farmer protecting orphaned children from harm.

Websites:

D'Ambra, Tony. "The Night of the Hunter (1955): Not Noir." March 1, 2009 <http://filmsnoir.net/film_noir/the-night-of-the-hunter-1955-not-noir.html>.
Tony D'Ambra comments on some of the weaknesses he finds in the film, particularly the editing and the moral relativism of many of the characters such as John's father's ability to commit murder for money.

Ebert, Roger. "The Night of the Hunter (1955)." November 26, 1996 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19961124/REVIEWS08/401010344/1023>.
Roger Ebert reviews the film and explains why he thinks The Night of the Hunter has survived the last 50 years to become a critical favorite.

Atwood, Margaret. "Why I love Night Of The Hunter." March 19, 1999 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1999/mar/19/margaretatwood>.
This page reviews The Night of the Hunter and makes arguments for the film's underlying theme being the loss of innocence and that the ending of the film is not as positive as it appears.

Extra:
Experimental band
Fantômas plays the opening lullaby theme from Night of the Hunter before playing the theme to Cape Fear, another Robert Mitchum film.