Still from 1955's "The Night of the Hunter."

and crawls into the domestic lives of lonely widows. Just weeks into a certain romance with one of those aforementioned widows, Powell will off them and steal their money when the time’s right. So taken by his own bogus preachings, Powell rationalizes that his wrongdoings are an extension of the Lord’s work: he’s merely ridding the world of its sinful women and using their money to continue wandering around the states to spread God’s word.

 

Yet when we first meet him in The Night of the Hunter, he is being shoved into a meager jail cell for a comparatively trivial reason: he was caught driving a stolen vehicle. Because he's so immoral, Powell only considers this three-day sentence to be a short pit stop before moving to the next down. He doesn't think anything will come of it.

 

So he's surprised that his jail time introduces him to what he believes is a golden opportunity. His cellmate, small-time criminal Ben Harper (Peter Harper), accidentally lets it slip that he has $10,000 hidden somewhere on his property courtesy of a botched bank robbery. 

 

Harper does not reveal the dough’s precise location. But Powell's intrigued, even more so after it's mentioned that Harper has a wife and a pair of kids waiting back home. Perfect, he tells himself. All he'll have do is track them down and go through the motions of his usual seduce and destroy and collect routine. Such will probably be easy: Harper is set to be executed, and Mrs. Harper (Shelley Winters) may certainly be vulnerable to letting a man like Powell into her bed in no time.

 

But there's a setback: no one in the Harper clan knows where this stash of green is.

 

That can't put a stop to Powell's desires, though, and post-execution does he quickly make his way to Harper's place of living. Per usual, he makes a good impression on the locals. But he makes an ever better one on Mrs. Harper, who falls victim to Powell’s charms so immediately we might call it a stretch if it weren't also so obvioius that societal pressure is a vital part of the seduction.

 

Mrs. Harper marries this mystery man just days after meeting him (and is then predictably murdered a few weeks after that), and this leaves the Harper children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), to fend for themselves against the backdrop of Powell's increasing derangement.

 

They're forced to take to the road, desperately looking for some sort of salvation. Fortunately, they eventually make their way to the home of Rachel (Lillian Gish), a sort of Mother Goose figure. But even she cannot definitively shield them from the maniacal Powell.

 

And this always-lurking, tangible presence of evil is just one of the reasons why The Night of the Hunter so greatly disturbs. It is a horror movie which grapples with being unquestionably powerless in a dangerous situation. This is a sensation I’m certain most have felt numerous times in their lives, but undoubtedly is it one especially felt when we're children. The more I watched John explicitly say that he feels unsafe when in Powell's presence – to no avail – the more I harkened back to the days when I knew that whatever I said might not appear to have real urgency unless an adult verified my concerns first.

 

In The Night of the Hunter, these frustrations are rendered with a vaguely sensational angle that help the feature find a commonplace between cinematic reverie and real-world horror. Visually, the movie is reminiscent of a night terror, ink-blotted and unsettlingly artificial. Everything appears to have been lifted out of one of Fritz Lang’s silent movie sets, the shadows capable of swallowing us whole, the pointed, geometrical set design turning every room into its own self-contained madhouse. (Stanley Cortez’s cinematography is worth the price of rental alone — no films of the era so perfectly captured a lost one while still maintaining a modern sensibility.)

 

It is one of the greatest movies of its decade — it's a psychological thriller yarn that refuses to unravel — but it was not recognized as such upon release, mostly because it was acclaimed actor Laughton’s only directorial effort, because it was a critical and commercial failure, and because it is, arguably, just especially well-made genre fare.

 

But look at the effect it has over us, the stylistic risks Laughton takes (which obviously influenced filmmakers from the Coen Brothers to David Lynch), and the performances (at once infused with the classic presentational style and a hint of realism). Maybe it’s doesn’t match the stylistics of what we consider to be “important” movies, like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Citizen Kane (1941). But try to find a comparable movie and you’ll come up with zilch. A

DIRECTED BY

Charles Laughton

 

STARRING

Robert Mitchum

Shelley Winters

Lillian Gish

Billy Chapin

Sally Jane Bruce

James Gleason

Peter Graves

 

RATED

NR

 

RELEASED IN

1955

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 32 Mins.

The Night of the Hunter December 4, 2017        

harles Laughton’s expressionistic The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a soured fairy tale, a story of deception and death told from the perspectives of children. In it, the psychotic, self-appointed preacher cum serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, chilling) plays the bogeyman. 

 

His modus operandi is one typical of the 1930s in which the film is set. He goes from city to city — under the guise of a well-meaning reverend with a prepared monologue so good he even has tattoos to help support it —

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