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I still hear the lullaby singing sweetly in my head, like a hazy, haunting
dream that won't go away.
From the opening scene of the beautiful Lillian Gish and her children, watching over the world in a starry sky, this movie just sinks you into a mesmeric fairy tale land. The camera takes us down in one sweeping move to a scene of children playing, a hot sunny day, and right to the feet of a murder victim. And that sweet music turns on us like a twisted nightmare as the scene chases after a car speeding along a country road to find one of movies worst villains.
Charles Laughton, in sadly his one and only stab at directing, created a masterpiece of horror with Night of the Hunter. The moments of sugar coated sweetness only make this movie even more disturbing as you wonder how the two can inhabit the same world.
Mitchum is terrifying. More-so in a town full of simple folk ready to match him up with the local widow who needs a father for her lit'le n's. Its like he's walked into the middle of a Frank Capra movie and he's going to do what he wants to.
This is not just a great horror movie, but an artist achievement to rival Welles' Kane. The river scene is one of many moments of pure visual splendor. And that sound track just keeps drifting alone, as if trying to coax you into slumber, till the singing madman of your nightmares comes over the hill, relentless. "Chil-dren, Come along now"
You don't watch this movie, it watches you. ...Hush, Lit'le ones, Hush.
It's a shame Charle Laughton, the distinguished actor, didn't direct
more films. As he clearly indicates with "The Night of the Hunter", he
had a rare gift for guiding a production into achieving greatness. This
film, which didn't receive the attention it got when it was released,
has turned out to be something discerning movie fans saw from the
start, a classic.
Charles Laughton was basically a man of the theater, then came the movies, but he was at heart someone who was equally at ease working on the stage, or performing in front of a camera. Mr. Laughton undertook to direct this screen play written by another distinguished American writer and critic, James Agee, based on the David Grubb's novel.
The result is a magnificent film about to what extreme a man will go in order to steal from two young and innocent children something their father had left for them in trust. The evil character of Harry Powell, a charlatan preacher taking advantage of poor and unsophisticated country folk, is one of the best creations in the novel. Harry Powell doesn't care what he must do to get his hands in the money. He marries the children's mother, a widow who was hoping for some happiness in her life, only as part of his overall scheme of things.
The film is a poetic account of the story with great emphasis on the kindness the children receive at the end from Rachel Cooper, a woman with a heart of gold who took John and Pearl into her home when they needed it.
Robert Mitchum is the evil Harry Powell. It's without a doubt, one of Mr. Mitchum's best screen work. As guided by the director, the actor gives a performance that still surprises whoever watches the film for the first time. Shelley Winters plays Willa, the widow who can't sense the danger connected to the man she marries. Lillian Gish is another luminous presence in the film because she projects no-nonsense kindness and sweetness toward the children she takes into her home.
The film also is enhanced by the brilliant black and white cinematography by Stanley Carter. The film still shows a pristine look fifty years after it was released. Also, the musical score of Walter Shumann adds another layer in the film's texture.
"The Night of the Hunter" is ultimately a work of art that moves the viewer because of the tremendous work its director, Charles Laughton, gave to the movie.
'The Night Of The Hunter' is recognized by most critics and hard core film buffs as one of the most extraordinary movies ever made, but sadly it's still frequently overlooked by the many movie fans, probably because it's so difficult to categorize. Yes, it's a thriller but it's also a child's nightmare. A Noir but also a fable. Robert Mitchum gives one of his very best performances as Harry Powell, the charming but evil preacher with "love" tattooed on one hand, "hate" on the other. Powell is one of the most memorable screen villains of all time, and 'The Night Of The Hunter' is worth watching just for Mitchum, who is mesmerizing. Shelley Winters is surprisingly effective as the widow Powell woos, Peter Graves has a small role at the beginning as her first husband, and Lillian Gish plays the saintly Ms. Cooper, guardian of unwanted children. Because this movie isn't set in isn't the "real world" many viewers don't know exactly how to react to it. Charles Laughton's small town America is a stylized, dreamlike place, in some ways not unlike David Lynch's twisted world depicted in 'Blue Velvet' and 'Twin Peaks'. It also reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's Gothic South in her classic novels 'Wise Blood' and 'The Violent Bear It Away'. Some of the scenes involving Powell menacing Winters' children deliberately invoke James Whale's 'Frankenstein', and the sequence depicting the children's journey down the river is charming but blatantly artificial. While I'm a big fan of "outsider" film makers like Russ Meyer, Coffin Joe and Alejandro Jodorowsky, I also greatly admire those who work within the system but still manage to subvert Hollywood with doses of surrealism. I'm thinking of movies such as 'Kiss Me Deadly', 'Shock Corridor' and 'The Manchurian Candidate'. Each of these films are unique but they also remind me of each other and of 'The Night Of The Hunter'. I highly recommend them all and wish that there were a lot more movies like them today. 'The Night Of The Hunter' is essential viewing for anybody interested in American movies!
One of the best suspense films ever made. Exquisite art direction: moody, scary, sometimes lyrically beautiful. Yet there are comical and even idyllic moments. Mitchum is EXCELLENT, especially in the cellar scene. Subtle, different; not just the same old ax-after-ax tear-'em-up blood-and-gore formula, but REAL suspense built from the personalities of the characters and the artful editing, music, art direction, and Charles Laughton's directing. Yet warm and lovely in parts. The cast's characterizations are excellent, even in minor roles, such as the "typical townspeople". You'll remember this one for a long time. Maybe not for kids under 12, as the frightening parts are too much like real life (compared to run-of-the-mill horrendous movies) and might leave unsettling memories.
Just before John Harper's father is captured by police, he tells his son
where he has hidden the money. While in prison for his crime, he sleep
talks and betrays himself to the religiously unhinged Rev Harry Powell.
Powell leaves jail with Harper dead in his cell and sets out to infiltrate
the family and get the money. However, when he kills John's mother, he and
his sister go on the run from him.
One of these `hindsight is 20/20' films that gains a reputation with time, this film deserves the praise in gets in many areas and deserve to be very fondly remembered, or at least a lot more fondly than it was received by critics and audiences of the time. The plot is basic but full of religious imagery that works very well, whether it's Powell's twisted preacher or the runs of scripture that many of the characters cling to. The film presents itself with a very strong tone of foreboding and darkness that makes the material (and characters) feel more dangerous.
Most of the credit for this belongs with Laughton as director, who uses shadow really well and frames the film with clever shots. Some that come to mind is the shadow of Powell on his horse on the horizon, or the woman in the car underwater and so on. It stills feels clever and inventive now so it must have been seen as very different in the fifties. How he didn't win an Oscar, I'm not sure wonder what else was up in this year.
Mitchum is tremendous in the title role, his role is larger than life and was also slightly playing with fire in it's portrayal as a reverend as corrupt or evil. Chapin is really wonderful as young John and has a much better character than some of the others in the cast. Winters is good in her performance. The only downside of the film is the 10 minutes at the end which feel like they are a happy ending that has just been tacked on and doesn't fit with the tone of the film.
Other than that, this is a very strong film in terms of theme, plot, acting and cinematography. It deserves more than it got at the time and I'm glad that modern audiences are finding this film all the time.
I was lucky enough to see this in a cinema with a restored print. I had
previously caught a snatch of it while channel surfing cable TV, and
saw enough in about 30 seconds to realise that this was worth watching
through if I got the chance.
I could barely speak at the end of the film. Pauline Kael called it one of the scariest movies ever made, and she was absolutely right. Robert Mitchum becomes the embodiment of evil, and his pursuit of the children is so relentless, and so menacing, that it becomes impossible to believe that they can escape. The images are brilliant; there's a depth to black and white that colour somehow lacks, and it is used superbly here to create a sense of brooding terror.
I didn't mind the homily at the end. Like everything else in the film, it is done with utter conviction, and this makes it work. Charles Laughton saw it as the indispensable conclusion to the film, and the strength of his belief makes it indispensable.
The images are so much part of the film that it must lose a great deal on the small screen, although my minimal exposure to it in that environment showed that it was still well worth watching, but if you get a chance to see it in a cinema, jump at it.
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.
Charles Laughton had only one choice to pay the role of
psycho-reverend- conman for his adaption of Night of the Hunter and it
was Robert Mitchum. When he's on the screen Mitchum fills it with
It's an unusual part for Mitchum. Usually he's terse and laconic in films, but as Harry Powell he's just full of words. Of course he doesn't mean anything he says, but he's just a fountain of speech in Night of the Hunter. Mitchum as he did later on in Thunder Road drew from his hobohemian background of the open road to get his characterization of the Reverend Harry Powell.
Powell who marries and murders women after robbing them blind has more than 25 to his credit in the backwoods of the Ohio river country in West Virginia and Kentucky during the Depression years. But he gets arrested for stealing a car and gets 30 days in jail. Mitchum gets thrown in the same cell as Peter Graves who robbed a bank and killed two people. Graves before he's caught gave the loot to his son Billy Chapin with a promise not even to tell their mother because she's not too swift. How right he's proved to be.
After Graves is hung, Mitchum finishes his sentence with the intention of wooing and marrying widow Shelley Winters. She falls for his line as does her little girl Sally Jane Bruce. But young Billy spots Mitchum for a phony from the gitgo.
The children are in for a lot of heartbreak and tragedy before the film concludes. One of the things I like best about Night is the Hunter is the way Laughton graphically demonstrates the life and poverty of rural America during the Depression. The film is all seen through the eyes of the children as they begin their Huck Finn like odyssey down the Ohio river, escaping from Mitchum.
According to Lee Server's biography of Mitchum, Laughton while great with the adults had no patience at all with the kids. After a while he let Mitchum actually direct Chapin and Bruce in their scenes.
Lillian Gish gives one of her great performances in the sound era of her career as the farm woman who eventually takes in the kids as she does for a few others. She's there to be a contrast to Mitchum. Her actions speak her faith a lot louder than Mitchum's phony ramblings.
Another role I like in this is that of Evelyn Varden. She and husband Don Beddoe employ Shelley Winters at their drug store and she's all full of concern in a showy pharisee like way for the kids. She's totally taken with Mitchum, but when he's unmasked as a phony her rage is something to see on screen.
Sad that Charles Laughton didn't do more behind the camera than this one film. He and Robert Mitchum formed a mutual admiration society that lasted until Laughton passed on inn 1962.
Still Night of the Hunter is a testament to that mutual admiration.
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) steals $10,000 and leaves the money in the
keeping of his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane
Bruce), hoping they might one day find their way out of the economic
trauma of the Depression-era South. John knows where the money is
hidden, but Harper has sworn him to secrecy, a move John quickly
resents when posing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) comes to
town. Powell shared a cell with Harper, who, immediately after hiding
the money, was arrested for murder and armed robbery. Ben is executed,
and the wicked Powell, released from jail, moves in on Willa (Shelly
Winters), Harper's gullible widow, hoping to draw out the secret of the
money's location. As tensions mount, it becomes progressively clear
that the only hope for the children's salvation rests with regional
matriarch and philanthropist Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who always
keeps her doors open for displaced youngsters.
It's not often that I'm stumped by the question of why a classic is a classic, but thanks to Night of the Hunter, I know it's not unthinkable. Yes, the cinematography is amazing, even by the standards of film noir, but the pace is rushed, the plot is a walking disaster, and the characters if we can call them that more closely resemble flotsam.
The movie opens with Gish's disembodied head floating on a backdrop of stars, the drifting heads of children listening with rapt attention to her formulaic Bible-talk. Even if we grasp the intended irony of the moment a dreamy segue into a deadly nightmare there's no escaping how God-blastedly cheesy the image looks, how it feels more like a presage to Sesame Street or an eighties sit-com than a purportedly moving work of horror. As an intro, it destroys any precedent for subtlety. We're less than a minute into the movie and it's already abundantly clear that our storytellers have absolutely no faith in our ability to figure anything out for ourselves.
The trend continues with the introduction of Harry Powell. Eschewing what could have been a very creepy experience encountering the dark side of Powell in a slow, subtle, and action-driven manner Powell hits us over the head with a string of didactic monologues, our occasion for discovery smashed right at the outset. Ben Harper, by contrast, is dispensed with so quickly we're barely aware of his presence. He's a completely wasted opportunity, a perfunctory McGuffin for an even more perfunctory plot. The movie would have been much more powerful if John had gone through the story haunted by the memory of a loving father who died in a desperate act to provide for him. Instead, Harper's only function is to set the story in motion, and as soon as he does this, he disappears from view and from memory.
Willa Harper is even more obnoxious. A pivotal factor in the story, Willa's fanatic devotion to Powell is the main instigation of everything else that follows, but because we never get a sense of who Willa was prior to Powell's arrival, her devotion feels unfounded, her behavior seems unreasonable, and, as a consequence, everything else in the story feels like it's balancing on thin air. Why is this woman so easily brainwashed? Why does Powell consistently come out on top? Every single plot-point is, at best, the product of characters acting mysteriously, and at worst, the product of characters behaving in a manner completely opposed to reason. How an entire town can get swept up in the patently obvious lies of a figure like Powell is beyond me, especially to the extent that they side against their own. There's nothing particularly strategic about Powell's methods, nor is he notably charismatic or even all that bright. He constantly loses his temper, performs actions so rash and brainless you'd expect immediate rejoinder, and holds among his many beliefs the bone-headed conviction that the best way to track down a fugitive is to ride through open country and sing at the top of his lungs. Yet Powell always gets way, because the rest of the universe is too stupid to stop him, and it's precisely this idiocy that drives the story forward, not the heroes, and certainly not the villain.
Which brings me to the last point: acting, i.o.w. what the devil is everyone smoking? I respect Robert Mitchum a great deal, but his performance as Powell is woefully over-the-top, in-your-face, and not the least bit compelling. Gish is great, but the credits start rolling before she's even gotten her feet on the ground. Shelly Winters is a tremendous actress, and she does her best as Willa, but again, the character is so poorly written that she comes across feeling like a mariner who's been thrown off the edge of a ship, floundering for all she's worth, but no match for the dead-weight of the screenplay, which drags her to the bottom and feels no remorse. Worst of all is Chapin as John, suffering from prolifically delayed reaction time, always lagging at least a second-and-a-half behind whatever he's supposed to be responding to. Expressions of shock and anger seem to come out of nowhere, a clear indication of his being taught to look and act in a particular way at a particular moment without anyone telling him why. I'm not blaming the kid for this. I'm blaming Charles Laughton, who found children so dislikable he dumped them all on Mitchum, who did his best to direct them, but was clearly not up to the punch.
All in all, I'm at a loss as to why this movie continues to garner such widespread acclaim, save the unfortunate reality that the herd mentality of movie criticism discourages any kind of dissension, so we continue trumpeting the virtues of fossils, long after they've outlived their usefulness.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's a unique experience for me to see a movie that's universally acclaimed and not get something out of it. Night Of The Hunter is that movie. The first thing that struck me was, apart from Mitchum, how bad the acting was. It was hard not to believe that some of the cast had not been plucked from the street outside the studio, prodded onto the set with long poles and forced to read their lines off idiot boards. Secondly, any suspense evaporates early on when the kids escape from Mitchum, after being cornered in a cellar, by a contrivance so lame it doesn't just suspend belief, it kills it stone dead. The film has one or two memorable images but the mood is consistently broken by bad acting, excruciating dialogue, backdrops that ripple gently in the draught from the studio fans and poor continuity. Mitchum's performance is good but it's drowned in a sea of tedious, one-dimensional, ham-fisted twaddle - what a waste. I can see my opinion is a minority view, all I can suggest is that people who find this film worthwhile should check out Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock, a subtle exercise in atmosphere and menace that actually works.
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