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IMDb Top 250: #219 – The Night of the Hunter (1955)

250 films, 250 reviews. This is a pretty crazy idea, but who doesn’t love a challenge? Here at Cultured Vultures we’ll be counting down the IMDb Top 250 with a review for each from one of our dedicated film writers. Everything from Goodfellas to Casablanca will be covered over the next year or so for you film lovers to enjoy. You can’t say we don’t spoil you, you lovely lot. – Ashley, Project Lead

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Combining elements of a fairy tale with horror and noir, The Night of the Hunter remains a highlight for everyone who was involved in it.

Charles Laughton was a well-known actor, by the time producer Paul Gregory brought him the novel The Night of the Hunter for a first-time directorial effort. Working with writer James Agee (who really did contribute to the project), Laughton worked to create a film unlike anything that had ever been made before. He succeeded. In fact, he was so successful, critics and audiences alike reacted to the film less than kindly. Reviews ranged from confused, to downright hostile. The film failed to make any significant money. Laughton never directed again, and died a few years later in 1962.

It’s easy to watch a film as brilliant and imaginative as this, and wonder what else Laughton could have accomplished, had he been given the chance. Obviously, we’ll never know. A stellar actor, with numerous noteworthy roles in his filmography, we only have The Night of the Hunter as an indication of his genius as a filmmaker. Too much speculation on what could have been is unfair to the one movie he did make. At the end of the day, speculation aside, The Night of the Hunter is a wonder. It is a movie defined by haunting visuals, genuine tension, and magnificent performances.

For many people, Robert Mitchum as the charming, monstrous Reverend Harry Powell is the greatest work of Mitchum’s career. With the possible exceptions of Out of the Past, the original Cape Fear, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, it’s hard to name a more memorable role for Mitchum. His own career ran from the 1940s, all the way to the mid-1990s. There are numerous examples that suggest Mitchum was a far better actor than he often got credit for. You have to put The Night of the Hunter near the top of the list, if not at the very top. It is one of the best case studies in villainy ever committed to film.

Watch Night of the Hunter more than once. You have to. While you’re paying attention to Mitchum charming his way into the life of a widow and her two children, you might miss the dozens of visual tributes to German Expressionism that populate the film. When you’re paying attention to those, you might miss how essential the music (from Walter Schumann) is to the film’s mood. You may also need to see the movie again, in order to appreciate the using of lighting and shadows. And then there’s the story itself, which only seems simple, but is in fact a rich, complex narrative. You can watch The Night of the Hunter a dozen times. Even on the 12th go-round, you’ll still find surprises.

Personally, I can’t really pick just one thing about this movie that I love. If pressed, I would probably go with Mitchum’s performance. His Reverend Harry Powell is the absolute worst. He is completely irremediable. There are no scenes in which we find ourselves feeling just a teensy bit sorry for him. He is pure evil from the moment we meet him. When he marries the widow (played well by Shelley Winters), he is still evil. When he tries to cozy up to her children, in order to figure out where their father buried a ton of money, guess what, he’s still absolutely fucking evil. Mitchum played many of his most famous characters with varying degrees of swagger. That laidback arrogance is in play here. However, as you can imagine, it is considerably more sinister, than virtually any other role Mitchum took on in his career. There is something mesmerizing about Powell. We understand early on that we shouldn’t trust him. At the same time, most of us have encountered someone along those lines in our own lives. And we probably trusted that person, even when an inner voice screamed at us to run like hell.

There are people who are absolute malevolence, yet are never hurting for friendships or opportunities. Until the very end, Mitchum creates a character who might very well get away with all of the horrible crimes he commits. In the real world, people like Powell get away with everything all the time.

Mitchum’s bad guy is one of the best bad guys in movie history. This needs to be repeated several times. Until you’ve seen Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, your overall understanding of movie villains is sorely lacking. Combine Mitchum’s performance with the atmosphere of the film, and you have one of the scariest films ever made. It is as potent now, as it was sixty years ago.

Beyond Mitchum and Shelley Winters, who plays the hopeless victim to perfection, we also have the legendary Lillian Gish. Although Gish was not Laughton’s first choice (he wanted his wife Elsa Lancaster to play the heroic, unshakable Rachel Cooper), it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Gish was another cast member whose career ran nearly the whole of her life. As difficult as it might be to believe, she had already been a film actress for over forty years, by the time she played the only other strong character in The Night of the Hunter (beyond Powell). We’re a little more than halfway through the movie, when we meet her. She is a caretaker of children. We understand implicitly that she has seen and survived more than Powell ever will. Her character is a perfect, unflinching match for Harry Powell. When faced with someone who is decidedly stronger than he is, we discover just how little power Powell really has. It is a truly entertaining, even humorous showdown. Gish is an absolute badass, while Mitchum yet again proves his range as an actor. Along the way, the weird, dreamlike quality of the movie endures. Laughton creates a unique, pure film. It never fails to engage. It never sacrifices one of its strange elements to satisfy another.

It starts off with a desperate man, burying some money on his property. It ends with two children finding a home, as well as a strong maternal figure. Between those two points, The Night of the Hunter is going to leave you speechless. How it will accomplish this, I won’t say. It seems to be different for each person.

Note: the IMDb Top 250 Cultured Vultures are using is based on the standings from the 16th of November. Inconsistencies may apply.

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