Tuesday 18 June 2019

Movie Review: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

A thriller fable about the clash between good and evil, The Night Of The Hunter combines child-level fantasy with religion-tinged intimidation and a majestic visual style.

During the Great Depression, self-appointed Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) roams the rural United States, preying on widowed women, stealing their money and killing them.

Farmer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) kills two men during a robbery and escapes with $10,000 to help feed his family. With the police in hot pursuit, Ben hides the stolen money in a secret location known only to his young children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) and is then arrested.

Harry serves a short sentence for car theft and meets Ben in prison, learning about the stolen cash. After Ben's execution for murder, Harry charms Ben's widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and soon marries her. He tries to extract information about the money's hiding place from the children, but John and Pearl are resilient and resourceful, and will eventually receive help from the kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).

In his one and only directorial outing, actor Charles Laughton crafts a creepy children-in-peril thriller packed with noir stylistic elements. Written by James Agee as an adaptation of Davis Grubb's 1953 book which in turn was inspired by real murderer Harry Powers, the film is a visual treat. Many scenes are frame-worthy and look simply gorgeous, with brilliant use of silhouettes and lighting, the background often as important as the foreground, many frames staged with a stunning eye for visual excellence.

With LOVE tattooed on his right fist fingers and HATE on the left, Harry Powell is one of the slimiest and persistent villains to haunt the big screen. Robert Mitchum's laid back style is perfectly matched to the character's lackadaisical manner, as Powell hunts the weakest of the weak, targeting widows and children as they scrape to survive during an economic meltdown. And he does it all while spouting religious drivel both to gain instant societal respect and to intimidate the uninformed.

And yet this is a fairytale, and Laughton pulls back ever so slightly on the menace factor whenever it threatens to become too serious. Nature's quiet observance, represented by the stunning montage of animals overseeing a crystalline boat trip, ensures balance is maintained no matter how desperate the situation appears. The children's conflicted purity proves equal to Reverend Powell's sinister threat, and other forces of good in the form of Rachel Cooper will line up on their side to even out the battle.

Cooper is a genuinely devout woman, and Agee's astute script reveals the two sides of religion. Powell deploys doctrine for manipulation and personal gain, while Rachel dedicates her life to charity and helping others during desperate times.

The Night Of The Hunter stands unique as a dark story of disguised evil unleashed on the unsuspecting land, both a parable about economic devastation and a reaffirmation of the good and bad dichotomy within the human condition.

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