Monday, July 28, 2014

The Night of the Hunter

Based on the novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter is the story of a reverend who has become a serial killer as he woos a widow and her two children in an attempt to steal money that the children had been hiding as it was stolen by their late father. Directed by Charles Laughton and written by Laughton and James Agee, the film is based on the real life story of Harry Powers who would do a similar crime and later be hanged to death in 1932. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The Night of the Hunter is a gripping and astonishing film from Charles Laughton.

Set in 1930s West Virginia, the film revolves a devious preacher who kills as he learns that his cellmate, who is to be hanged for theft, has hidden the stolen money with his children prompting the preacher to marry the man’s widow and terrorize the children into giving him the stolen money. It is a film that plays into the world of sin and temptation as it’s all driven by this preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who believes he is doing God’s work as he marries lonely women and then kill them so he can collect their money. When he meets the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), he charms and marries her so he can be close to her and his family. While the people in their small town think Harry is a nice man as does Willa’s young daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), only Willa’s son John (Billy Chapin) isn’t so sure about Powell where he and Pearl eventually learn the truth as they would do whatever it takes to hide from him.

James Agee’s screenplay, which featured re-writes by Charles Laughton, definitely plays into this idea of sin and doing what is right as the man driving these ideas is Reverend Powell who would get Willa to see sin in herself. Especially as she feels guilty for the death of her husband Ben (Peter Graves) who killed two men and stole $10,000 where he would be hanged for his crimes. Powell is an intriguing individual where he dresses up like a preacher and acts like a preacher while his right hand would have “love” tattooed on his fingers while the word “hate” is on his left hand. It’s an interesting duality that he brings yet it is one that is full of hate as he would bring terror to John and Pearl who would eventually flee from his clutches where they would eventually find the safety in an unlikely person in a woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who is this no-nonsense person that can see through everything.

Laughton’s direction is definitely quite stylish as he definitely goes for an expressionistic style in the way he tells the story. Some of which involves some unique wide shots where it has elements of style while mostly focusing on medium shots and close-ups with some very stylish camera angles. Especially as it plays into the air of suspense and drama where Laughton’s framing is among the key moments in the film. He would infuse a lot of images into the frame such Billy telling Pearl a story where the shadowy image of Powell would suddenly come in as a sense of foreshadowing of what is to come. Even as Laughton would create moments in the film that are quite startling but also filled with such beauty in the images as it plays into the sense of duality of love and hate.

The direction would also feature expressionistic images set in the Ohio River as Laughton would create something that is quite somber to explore a world that is very dangerous and also unforgiving at times. When the film’s third act would introduce Rachel Cooper, there is that sense of the unknown at first yet Laughton would change the tone a bit since it adds a glimmer of hope to John and Pearl in their plight. Especially as the confrontation between Powell and Cooper come ahead as both would recite the words of God but it would play into who really stands for what is right and wrong. Overall, Laughton crafts a very chilling yet evocative film about a murderous preacher who kills for profit as he terrorizes two innocent children.

Cinematographer Stanley Cortez does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography with its use of shadows, distorted images, and lighting schemes to play out the film‘s expressionistic style as well as set an eerie mood for the suspense. Editor Robert Golden does excellent work with the editing to convey the slow-burn of the film‘s suspense as well as bringing some unique rhythmic cuts to bring in some bite for some of these moments. Art director Hilyard Brown and set decorator Alfred E. Spencer do amazing work with the set pieces from the home of Willa as well as the farm exterior where John and Pearl briefly hid at. The sound work of Stanford Houghton is fantastic for the way some of Powell‘s singing is heard throughout as it acts as a voice of terror while some of the sound effects help add to the film‘s suspense. The film’s music by Walter Schumann is superb for its chilling orchestral themes as well as some somber moments such as it plays into the plight and innocence of John and Pearl.

The casting by Mille Gusse is incredible as it features some notable small roles from Peter Graves as Willa’s late husband Ben, Gloria Castillo as Rebecca’s adopted daughter Ruby who is often a victim of temptation, Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden as a couple of local shopkeepers who are friends of Willa and the children, and James Gleason as a river man that John is friends with as he would make a very chilling discovery. Sally Jane Bruce is wonderful as Pearl as this young girl who exudes innocence as she is confused by the presence of Powell. Billy Chapin is superb as John Harper as this young boy who is suspicious about Powell as well as the questions about the money as he knows about its whereabouts while dealing with the world of good and evil.

Shelley Winters is excellent as Willa Harper as this widow who is consumed with guilt over her husband’s death as she marries Powell unaware of his intentions as she later learns that there’s something about him that makes her uncomfortable. Lillian Gish is phenomenal in a small but memorable performance as Rachel Cooper as this old woman who adopts lost children as she is this stern figure that not only keeps John and Pearl in check but also knows a lot about the ways of the world as she is someone not to be trifled with. Finally, there’s Robert Mitchum in an absolutely magnificent performance as Reverend Harry Powell as Mitchum brings this dark charm to the role that makes him so engaging but it is balanced by this brooding presence that just sends chills as his character is, without question, one of the greatest villains in cinema as he is the epitome of absolute evil.

The Night of the Hunter is a tremendously haunting yet visceral film from Charles Laughton. Featuring an outstanding performance from Robert Mitchum as well as a strong supporting performance from Lillian Gish, exquisite cinematography, and a chilling score. The film stands as one of the key films of the film noir genre as well as an exploration into the idea of good and evil. In the end, The Night of the Hunter is a remarkable film from Charles Laughton.

© thevoid99 2014


TheVern said...

I recently saw this and loved it. This is one of those scary movies you could show young kids and not have any major problems. Robert Mitchum is great and I agree with you about the casting of Billy Chaplan as the young man John. He is really good.

thevoid99 said...

It was an absolute scare-fest and man, Robert Mitchum was fucking evil. Definitely a film that I think everyone should see.