It's the Great Depression. In the process of robbing a bank of $10,000, Ben Harper kills two people. Before he is captured, he is able to convince his adolescent son John and his daughter Pearl not to tell anyone, including their mother Willa, where he hid the money, namely in Pearl's favorite toy, a doll that she carries everywhere with her. Ben, who is captured, tried and convicted, is sentenced to death. But before he is executed, Ben is in the state penitentiary with a cell mate, a man by the name of Harry Powell, a self-professed man of the cloth, who is really a con man and murderer, swindling lonely women, primarily rich widows, of their money before he kills them. Harry does whatever he can, unsuccessfully, to find out the location of the $10,000 from Ben. After Ben's execution, Harry decides that Willa will be his next mark, figuring that someone in the family knows where the money is hidden. Despite vowing not to remarry, Willa ends up being easy prey for Harry's outward ... Written by
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; one, for example, concerns director Charles Laughton, and how he supposedly found the script by James Agee totally unacceptable, rewriting it himself. This has been disproved by the discovery of Agee's 293-page first draft, back in 2004, which is, scene-for-scene, the film that Laughton directed. See more »
(at around 22 mins) When Harry and Willa are talking on the riverside, he has his arms crossed, with his left hand touching his right arm and his right hand holding the hat leaned on his left folded leg. Between shots he appears with his left hand leaning on his leg and his right hand free holding the hat. See more »
Rev. Harry Powell:
Leaning... leaning... safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning... leaning... leaning on the everlasting arms.
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Extraordinary, unparalleled, breathtaking ... that's how I would appraise the film's visuals, from DP Stanley Cortez. The images are all in B&W, and many have a noir design straight out of German Expressionism. Sharp angles, high-contrast "hard" lighting, and deep shadows amplify form, or rather distort reality, and as such project human experience as an exaggeration of the emotional.
Some of the images in "The Night Of The Hunter" are so enthralling that they will live on in the collective mind as long as cinema exists. Who can forget that famous underwater scene wherein a dead woman's body sits upright in a car with her hair flowing along the current like seaweed, accompanied by background music that is so dreamlike? One of my favorite images is the one wherein Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) lies in blissful repose on a bed as Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) stands by a window in an unadorned room with angular walls that slope upward, as if in a church.
One of the most haunting, and famous, sequences has the two children, John and Pearl, in a rowboat, as they make a Homeric odyssey down a river, lorded over by giant spider webs, frogs, and rabbits. And then there's that electrifying scene with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in silhouette, sitting in a chair, holding a shotgun, as Harry Powell sings "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms". Cinematic brilliance extraordinaire!
Consistent with its expressionistic visuals, the story is presented from the POV of a child's nightmare. John and Pearl symbolize innocence, and the bogeyman comes in the form of an adult, a godlike man who cons the gullible townsfolk including the children's mom. Our good reverend Powell is less interested in saving souls than he is in finding all that loot stashed away somewhere. Thus, the film's underlying theme is at least as relevant now as it was fifty years ago; the film has not aged one bit.
Production design is sparse, true to the film's visual style and to the setting in Depression era West Virginia. The casting is perfect. Robert Mitchum has just the right look and voice for the part of Harry Powell. I like how he calls to John and Pearl ... "chill-drenn?" Lillian Gish is well-suited to represent ... reality.
And those two kids likewise are ideally cast. Love the way Pearl, with her round face and those rag-a-muffin curls refers to herself, in that Southern drawl, as "Pell". And the film's horror combines with humor in many scenes, one of which has "Pell" sitting on the ground with scissors in hand nonchalantly cutting up paper currency into paper dolls.
Acting is generally exaggerated, again consistent with what one would expect in a nightmare. Evelyn Varden, as Icey Spoon (love that name), hams it up in a gossipy, mother hen sort of way. And Shelley Winters effectively jitters her way through the film, ghostlike, her character lost in delusion.
The film's original score is haunting and mournful, and could hardly set a more appropriate tone: "Dream little one, dream; dream my little one, dream; oh the hunter in the night fills your childish heart with fright; fear is only a dream; so little one dream".
With its brilliant photography, its unpopular but deeply truthful theme, and its nightmarish story, Charles Laughton's "The Night Of The Hunter" is high up on my list of twenty best films of all time.
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