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

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

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

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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