NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

 

Every so often a film comes out that doesn’t perform well, then critics damn it with faint praise. Soon enough a small (often funny-looking) group of people will tell you that the film is ‘ahead of its time’, and eventually it appears on the vitally important ‘year/decade/of all time’ lists. The Night of the Hunter is not that film. It surpasses that label with such dedication and vitality that it may well be from the parallel universe that brushes past ours, the one where everything is just that little bit better.

 

 

 

Enough hyperbole. Here’s some justification. The film was actor Charles Laughton’s first and only directorial effort, and luckily for us he assembled a team of Hollywood legends. With the help of cinematographer Stanley Cortez he invented a blend of then-contemporary noire style and German Expressionism, one replete with exaggerated shadows, claustrophobic set design and bizarre angles that would later inspire such diverse film-makers as The Coen Brothers and David Lynch. He cast silent era legend Lillian Gish as the matriarchal heroine Rachel Cooper. The script is darkly funny, and has more to say about sexual mores than a dozen romantic comedies.

 

 

 

 

While those are certainly nice things for a film to have, its greatest asset is the Hunter himself- preacher Harry Powell. The sole member of the religion ‘worked out ‘twixt him and the lord’, Robert Mitchum’s animalistic charm is key to Powell’s legacy as one of the all time great screen villains. His signature tattooed knuckles have since become shorthand for a disturbed mind, and have shown up everywhere from Do The Right Thing to The Simpsons.

 

 

Hunter shows little faith for the intelligence of small town America. Powell’s fire-and-brimstone teachings win over the populace, and the heart of Willa Harper (a wide-eyed Shelley Winters). Of course, it’s not her heart he wants but her cash, the spoils of a bank robbery entrusted to Willa’s children by their now-imprisoned father. Surrounded by a town too enchanted or incompetent to help, the two Harper children have to protect their father’s money and escape the wrath of the hunter.

 

 

 

That’s just the first half. As the children escape the preacher’s clutches things take a turn for the surreal, and the strange shadows and eerie musical score amplify the children’s panic at being lost and alone. As for the ending, it’s bizarre as it is satisfying, with a piece of music woven through the film being key to to Powell’s potential undoing.

The Short Version – listing a black and white film on your Facebook profile makes you look classy, so why not pick this one? It’s got violence, sex and singing.

 

Words: Liam Jordan

 

Tags: Charles Laughton, coen, Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Harry Powell, Hollywood, Lillian Gish, night of the hunter, Robert Mitchum, simpsons, Stanley Cortez

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