“Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil?”
Most actors are seen on-screen portraying a character to the best of their ability, and in most cases an audience is aware that they are an actor portraying that particular character. There are few instances where you are watching an actor completely transform himself into a character, and you forget that it is even an actor acting. You just see the character on-screen. The case can be said about the great Robert Mitchum and his performance in The Night of the Hunter as the devious and shrewd Harry Powell. Robert Mitchum is still terrifying to this day, and should be considered among the great cinematic villains a long with Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and Heath Ledger’s The Joker.
The Night of the Hunter is a classic tale of good vs. evil told in such an idiosyncratic way. The classic thriller, director Charles Laughton’s one and only film, is about a shady reverend, Harry Powell, who seeks out to find $10,000 in stolen loot by using his powers as a religious figure in a corrupted The Great Depression era of America. Even though it was made over 60 years ago, it hasn’t aged a bit. The story is still captivating and the performances are all phenomenal. This is as much of a horror as it is a crime thriller. It’s scary, tense, chilling, creepy and was made in 1955 during the production code in a Hollywood studio.
There is so much that is implied in this film, that when you stop to think about what is actually going on, it’s just spine-tingling. Movies back in the 1950s obviously couldn’t show much graphic content. Filmmakers weren’t allowed to show much violence, no blood, and have no bad language of any kind in the dialogue. This clearly made it hard to show on-screen realistically how particular events and people actually behave. However, this old Hollywood system benefited films by allowing them to suggest “under the surface” terrible things, that the audience may not see before their very eyes, but they are very aware of what is occurring. Movies nowadays have become spoiled and basically just show every possible thing that is going on, and have not left much to the imagination for the audience. While watching The Night of the Hunter, I felt just as weary as I would feel watching a rated-R crime thriller from nowadays, and nothing graphic was shown in the film of any kind.
The great cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, definitely needs to be recognized. He shot some creepy frames in this film that have been cemented in my mind. It’s shot primarily in beautiful black and white silhouettes, and is one of those films where every shot can be taken and framed on a wall. He previously shot Orson Welles’The Magnificent Ambersons and would go on to shoot Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown. The cinematography really reminded me of the great silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and the plot is like Fritz Lang’s M with more religious themes.
Overall, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most uniquely dark films you will find in the 1950s and holds up so well today because of the way it was shot, the dark and captivating story, and the great performances, especially from Robert Mitchum in the lead as Harry Powell. It borrows tropes from genre films like horror, film noir, silent german expressionism, and there’s even some comedy here and there. There certainly never was a film like it up until that point. Which may be why it did poorly at the box office and got bad critical reviews, but it has stood the test of time, and even today seems very unique and original. A true masterpiece if there ever was one. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch it. It sure will be an experience you will never forget.