New to Me: 'The Night of the Hunter' (1955)

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New to Me: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

By Eric D. Snider | Think Pieces | August 29, 2012 | Comments ()


The difficulty in writing about famous movies that came out a long time ago is there's a good chance whatever you're going to say has already been said, and probably by someone who was more eloquent and also smarter and handsomer than you. Why even bother, you semi-literate troll? That's what you say to yourself.

Consequently, many of us don't talk about movies we see for the first time unless those movies are less than a year old. Even though plenty of people in our movie-loving social circles would be interested in discussing a non-current release -- either because they've seen it, or because they haven't and would like to -- we tend to gloss over them in our tweets and our Facebook posts and our manifestos.

I think we're missing out on something here. We're all constantly discovering new-to-us movies, filling in the gaps of our cinematic education. So how come the only online discussions are about movies that opened last weekend? Well, because we know those movies are on a lot of our peers' minds, that's why. There isn't much chance that a lot of people are currently thinking about the 50-year-old film I caught on Turner Classic Movies last week.

But so what? Part of the fun of being a writer -- or even just a movie-lover who talks a lot -- is that you can put a film on people's minds. Why not share your enthusiasm for a movie you've just seen for the first time, even if it's one that some people saw a long time ago? How else will the notable films of yesteryear keep being relevant?

New to Me: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Here's what I already knew before I watched it:

- The Night of the Hunter was the only film that actor Charles Laughton ever directed. Well, right there, that's interesting, isn't it? Plenty of actors have had one-time-only stints in the director's chair, but how many of those movies were as good as TNOTH is reputed to be? And why didn't Laughton direct anything else? We are intrigued.

- Despite the title, the film has nothing to do with the 1980s police drama Hunter, starring Fred Dryer. In fact, it would appear that the 1980s police drama Hunter, starring Fred Dryer, aired some 30 years after this movie came out.

- The movie is about children. They are in danger, I believe, or called upon to solve a mystery, or to thwart a kidnapping, or some such.

- It stars tough guy Robert Mitchum, Silent Era superstar Lillian Gish, future Poseidon Adventure victim Shelley Winters, and some kids who are not famous.

And then the watching happened! (I won't spoil it. The whole point of this is that I want you to see The Night of the Hunter. Why would I spoil it?)

The reference to Turner Classic Movies wasn't hypothetical in this case; that really is how I happened to catch The Night of the Hunter. Movie fans who don't regularly peruse TCM's schedule to look for DVR-worthy showings are doing themselves a grave disservice. TCM shows everything unedited and without commercials. I can't say enough about TCM without being hired as a spokesman (a job I would accept).

According to Robert Osborne, TCM's genial on-air host and living Hollywood encyclopedia, TNOTH was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences when it came out, and it was because of this disappointment that Laughton never directed another movie. (He died seven years later, so it's not like he would have had a prolific career behind the camera anyway.) As seems to be the case about half the time with the classics, it wasn't until decades later that film buffs developed an appreciation for TNOTH. It has since shown up on the American Film Institute's lists of best thrillers and best villains, and in the top 10 of the British Film Institute's list of "50 films you should see by the age of 14."

That last citation is worth discussing. TNOTH is about a preacher-turned-murderer who travels the Depression-era Midwest looking for wealthy widows to kill. While it isn't graphic (it was made in Hollywood in 1955, after all), it is not a "children's movie" under any of the usual definitions of that term. Nonetheless, it is partially about children, and about the different ways people treat kids: with kindness, with indifference, or as something to be exploited. There is wisdom in the notion of encouraging mature tweens to see it.

The movie starts with children finding a dead body in a barn, and things go downhill from there, loss-of-innocence-wise. Our young heroes, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), see their father (Peter Graves) arrested for murder and robbery in the first few minutes of the film, thrown to the ground roughly by police and handcuffed. Later, the local kids sing a nursery rhyme about public hangings, and John tells Pearl not to join in.

"Better not sing that song," he says.


"'Cause you're too little." Pearl is maybe 4 and John is about 9, but already he's being forced to grow up and act like an adult. He even drinks coffee.

Lillian Gish's character, the saintly Rachel Cooper, observes that despite being smaller and frailer than adults, children are more resilient. "When you're little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again," she says. "Children are man at his strongest. They abide." In another scene, she remarks with some sadness, "It's a hard world for little things." That reminded me of a line spoken by the schoolteacher in "Beasts of the Southern Wild": "This is the most important thing I can teach you. You gotta take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are."

But all of this niceness is later in the film. Rachel Cooper is the soothing, pro-child salve on the angry, malignant burn caused by Rev. Harry Powell. Going in, I had no idea what a fascinating monster this character would turn out to be. Played by Robert Mitchum with a shambling intensity that makes it look like he's always about to either hit someone or fall over, Powell is immediately and unambiguously identified as a villain. As he drives along in a stolen car, he talks to God about what he believes He wants him to do, which includes killing.

"Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember.... Not that You mind the killings!" Powell says to the Almighty. "Your book is full of killings. But there are things You do hate, Lord: perfume-smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair!" Uh, women, in other words. Powell is certain that God hates women, and that God approves of him killing women, especially women who have low morals (i.e., who enjoy sex). Powell visits a burlesque club just to remind himself how much he and God both hate naughty women.

TNOTH is shot like film noir, with emphasis on silhouettes and the contrast between light and dark. "Chiaroscuro" is the word that smart people use. Powell's shadow frequently enters the scene before he does. He has tattoos on his knuckles that spell out "LOVE" and "HATE" -- so that's where that came from! (See the references in Do the Right Thing, The Blues Brothers, and the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons. Oh, and Robert Mitchum played the bad guy in the original Cape Fear. Full circle, my friends.)

When Powell arrives in the quaint riverside town in which the film is primarily set, acting all folksy and preachy and nice, a local church busybody, the wonderfully named Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), believes he was sent there by God. Powell believes that too, though for different reasons. And here begins another major theme in the film: the way that religious faith can be twisted for good and bad purposes. Just as Powell cites scripture to justify his bad actions, Rachel Cooper quotes it to justify her good ones. The movie ends at Christmastime, one final reminder that despite Rev. Powell's perversion of it, religion can produce happiness.

Because of Hollywood's puritanical Production Code, a film in 1955 couldn't show a husband and wife in bed together. It could, however, show a husband slapping his wife across the face while she lies in bed and he stands next to her. That was permissible.

But The Night of the Hunter actually wasn't restricted too much by the Production Code, because the film's story meshed with the Code anyway. The Rev. Harry Powell is repulsed by non-procreational sex, even between lawfully wedded men and women. "That body was meant for begettin' children," he tells his new wife, who is done having kids. "It was not meant for the lust of men!" This is a convenient position to hold, since he hates women and is disgusted by sex. And it means he doesn't want Mrs. Powell to share a bed with him.

Now that I think about it, the psychotic Rev. Harry Powell is a lot like the modern-day MPAA: opposed to sex, yet totally OK with wanton violence.

Some stray thoughts on The Night of the Hunter:

- If I were to tell you today that a movie called The Night of the Hunter deals with an itinerant preacher and some children, you would probably assume that the preacher intends to molest the children. But nope, the Bible-thumper here doesn't want to do anything creepy like that. He just wants to kill people. Whew!

- Production Code notwithstanding, they did get away with a few things. I love the moment when old Icey Spoon and some townsfolk are talking, obliquely, about "marital relations" (that is, sex). "When you've been married to a man for 40 years, you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning."

- The children's widowed mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), at one point describes John in this way: "That boy's as stubborn and mulish as a sheep." As mulish as a sheep? I feel like that figure of speech isn't quite right.

- I have not seen all of Robert Mitchum's filmography, but I believe this is the only movie in which he utters the line "My, that fudge smells yummy!"

(The Night of the Hunter is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray from the usual places. It's also available for streaming through Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Olivia

    I love this movie, ever since I watched it on late night TV some 35+ years ago. I've never yet run across anyone who didn't think it was superb, although it gave nightmares to some. Great acting, beautiful and poetic cinematography (the scene with Pearl singing, as they drift down the river, is unforgettable), and a story that will scare the pants off you. They don't get much better than this.

  • Obst N. Gemuse

    Meatloaf's Eddie character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show also had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on his hands.

  • dahlia6

    I'm a big fan of Mitchum, and I really wanted to like this movie, but I swear, it seemed like Laughton had taken the beginning of one movie and the end of another and smooshed them together. It just didn't mesh for me, and I'm sad for that.

  • kirbyjay

    Billy Chapin was the brother of Lauren Chapin ( Kitten on Father Knows Best)
    Famous? No. But surely the product of a ramped up stage mother.
    Robert Mitchum, like Lee Marvin, one of the best of the didn't-want-to-be actors, considered it an unmanly profession and similarly acted out by drinking, smoking pot and indulging in the the occasional punchup. When asked why he did it ( acting) he said what else could he do? He had no training and no ambition.
    Gotta love those bad boys.

  • ,

    "Cape Fear" was on some channel here last week, and yes, Mitchum is one scary motherfucker in that one too. And as I was watching him act the hell out of the role, I was thinking to myself, "Dog DAMN it, I need to find 'Night of the Hunter' and see that again."

    I've seen what Laughton did described as German expressionism. The movie didn't do well because nobody knew what the hell to make of it. But now it gets ranked as one of the most beautiful movies ever shot.


    I saw it when I was a kid and it's impossible to forget the showdown at the end between Gish with her rocking chair and her shotgun and Harry skulking in the shadows. The sing-off between the two of them. It was chilling and amazing.

  • Jerry Kenney

    "Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arm." Yes sir, this is a movie in all the right senses of the word. I've loved Lillian Gish since Intolerance.

  • NOTH hunter is one of the all time great films and it is so difficult to see Mitchum as anything but psychotic once you have watched.

    "I can hear you whisperin' children, so I know you're down there. I can
    feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience children. I'm coming
    to find you now."

    i've been exposed to cable recently and TCM is the freakin best channel. last week, on Gene Kelly's b-day, they played his movies all day long. yup, wrote that day off to entertainment.

  • Archie Leach

    "Out of the Past". Jane Greer drags Robert Mitchum to hell and he loves every second of it.

    8 stars out of 10.

    Check it out.

  • capitainejanvier

    I recently saw it for the first time at the Austrian Filmmuseum when they were doing a Robert Mitchum retrospective. Somewhere in the booklet it said something about a famous director calling it the best amateur film ever made, which is a pretty spot-on assessment. Btw, True Grit cites rather a lot from TNOTH, right down to the song the preacher is singing all the time.

  • Jannymac

    Hmmm, do you think Joss Whedon based Preacher Caleb (Nathan Fillion) from S7 Buffy on NOTH? It's in the Dirty Girls ep.

  • e jerry powell

    K. Dale Koontz says yes!

  • linnyloo

    Oooooh. I could see that, yeah.

  • damnitjanet

    I've told this story before...this movie scared the ever-loving shit out of me as a kid. A kid who grew up watching horror movies and detective movies and everything Alfred Hitchcock. THIS movie freaked me right the fuck out. I don't think I've watched all of it since I was very young. I REFUSED to watch ANYTHING with Robert Mitchum in it for years.
    The image that sticks with me most? The younger, thinner, lovelier Shelley Winters, in her classic car, in the water, her driving scarf floating softly around her.

  • Bert_McGurt

    "...Rev. Harry Powell is a lot like the modern-day MPAA: opposed to sex, yet totally OK with wanton violence."
    Ah yes, the Misaimed Priorities Arbiters of the Arts. Such fine work they do.

  • Wednesday

    I only saw this movie about a year ago, too, and I freakin' loved it. It was scary as hell.

    I also second the promotion of TCM. They just aired Night Flight a few days back and it was amazing, all these crazy aerial shots over mountains and through storms in an era LONG before green screens.

  • sourbob

    I've been reading Eric Snider since Cinematical. Nice to see him on Pajiba!

  • linnyloo

    Reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's stories -- I live in Central Georgia right now, and the whole area is just steeped in that Southern Gothic stuff. I've heard of this one, and have been meaning to see it. Good to know it's worth my while.

  • Now for logical follow up to "You just watched Night of the Hunter for the first time?"

    So, have you watched Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural? It's the same film, only with a lower budget, knock off Lovecraft universe building, and vampires.

  • Pookie

    Jesus Christ Rowles, where do you find these guys? This guy is schizophrenic, I don’t know if he’s trying to talk us into or out of seeing this movie.

  • BWeaves

    Dustin changed his name to Jesus Christ?

  • annoyingmouse

    God I love you Pookie.

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