British actor Charles Laughton made only one movie over a career that spanned four decades, and its failure discouraged him from occupying the director’s chair again. The inability of the box office to warm to The Night of the Hunter, based on David Grubb’s 1953 novel of the same name, is tragic but unsurprising, given the movie’s unsettling Expressionist imagery, fabulously lensed in glistening black and white by Stanley Cortez, surreal touches, arch performances and dark theme of a reverend who sets out to murders children.
A precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and an unlikely influence on tattoo artists, The Night of the Hunter features a manically evil performance by the great Robert Mitchum. He is Harry Powell, who murders widows for their wealth. Powell has the words “hate” and “love” inked on his knuckles, which is one of many parlour tricks he uses to trap gullible believers in his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.
Powell’s latest target is Willa (Shelley Winters), the widow of a bank robber who doesn’t know what her son John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) do: the money is hidden at their home. Powell hypnotises Willa into complete submission, denying her sex (“That body was meant for begetting children...not for the lust of men,” he thunders) while also working his charms on Pearl. John remains suspicious, more so when Willa disappears. The mother is floating at the bottom of the lake, one of the movie’s many startling images.
The children flee and take refuge with a kindly woman who runs an orphanage out of her home. The casting of silent film star Lillian Gish as Miss Cooper is hardly incidental – she is the movie’s link to the visual and narrative styles of early cinema, and the perfect character to counteract Powell’s bogus preachings. As the righteous old woman prepares for a showdown with the preacher, Laughton rolls out one of the movie’s most haunting sequences: Cooper and Powell both sing the hymn “Leaning on Jesus.” The Night of the Hunter is filled with shadows and silhouettes, but nowhere is the contest between good and unvarnished evil more strikingly conveyed.
Its morality is as clear as the visuals, and its nightmarish quality makes the movie as frightening today as it must have been back in 1955. The innocence of the children who are the target of Powell’s malevolence is conveyed in the spectral images of their escape. As John and Pearl make their way across a river, frogs, rabbits and sheep watch the progress of the little ones even as their step-father, depicted as a silhouette on a horse, pursues them as the Devil would.