It’s probably more than likely that most cinema goers now, especially those who love the sinister psychological horror/thriller genre, may view this 1955 movie as no longer carrying the shock or disturbance that it once did on release, even though it’s loosely based on a true story about a man who presents himself as a Reverend and, in his mind and social behaviour, seems to believe this genuinely, preaching the word of God in small town middle America. But all the while he’s in fact on the look out for widows with money, so that he can steal it and kill them. And this view exists, despite the novel being a bestseller at the time and beyond its publication date of 1953; and despite the fact that it was written by a respected and talented American novelist, Davis Grubb, and the novel has since been reprinted in various editions, continues to remain in print and is definitely worth reading.
Besides which — given this is, primarily a movie appreciation (but what’s a movie without a great script and often a novel to base itself upon?! — the film continues to be recognised as a Hollywood classic and The Library of Congress has deemed it important enough to merit preservation of the original film stock; no small achievement in itself).
But why is the film so great? Because of the wonderful dialogue, co-scripted along with Laughton — via a number of rewrites and detailed instructions from him — by the famous American writer, James Agee (author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), who was also the screenwriter for The African Queen). For just one example of the glorious, compelling writing and acting and sinister undertones of the movie, just click on the DVD cover on the right; it’ll take you to what is probably the most famous scene in the film (note of course, it’s a sound file, if you happen to watch it at work!).
Even more impressive is the way the film’s made: the photography, the scene set ups, the camera angles, the amazing inter-play of light and darkness – all these are terrific.
And, without a doubt, it has one of the two most compelling performances that Robert Mitchum ever gave on-screen (the other, to me, being, Cape Fear (1962) [Region 2 DVD]; click here for a Region 1 DVD, which also is a Collector’s Edition with special features). At the start of the film, the Reverend Harry Powell is in jail and his cellmate is telling him about a stash of stolen money he has kept hidden away on his farm. And so the plot kicks off, as Mr Powell gets a twinkle in his eye and you know where he’ll be heading next. It’s no coincidence that his character is both sinister and charming, subtle yet bold, dark and light and, yes, full of love and hate, his favourite words to preach upon and that are tattooed on his knuckles, one word on each hand, using them in over the top thespian fashion in what you know is a many-times recited miniature morality play. Nor is it a coincidence but rather a lovely symbolism, obviously, that, like the black widow spider, his evil character kills widow women. Mitchum’s is a genuine tour de force performance. (Shelley Winters is also in it, but her acting is at the time, while conveying a certain naivety of the character and charm, is nothing compared to how brilliant she became as an actress over the next 10 years and beyond, marked especially by her vivid realisation of a selfish, vindictive, cruel mother in A Patch of Blue (1965), which was the benchmark role for her against which many of her later acting was measured against.)
Besides which, it is astonishing to think it was directed by an actor without any earlier experience of directing a movie before: by that truly brilliant actor, Charles Laughton (FYI, that link takes you to the official excellent site for Laughton – it’s very comprehensive in terms of its resources, links, etc.). When you consider it’s a cinema classic and that it was his first film, inevitably Citizen Kane by Orson Welles springs to mind for the same reasons. And yet typically Kane is ranked as the best film of all time and appears often as No.1 of the top 100, and The Night of the Hunter doesn’t appear anywhereat all in that list just linked.
However, at least there’s compensation in knowing that Laughton remains justifiably appreciated as one of the best actors of all time. (I believe you can see some of his superb performances/films on YouTube, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) (BTW, a far superior version than Brando’s in 1962), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).)
Laughton’s own intimacy with – and deep understanding of – acting and the cinema — of photography and lighting, especially— and his distinctive intelligence and sophistication – are all reflected through this film. It also remains a powerful, troubling one and, while not shocking to contemporary audiences in terms of portraying a killer/psychopath, it remains an accomplished, enthralling movie in its own right. I commend it to all cinephiles.