NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, 1955)

Self-proclaimed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, memorable) murders widows, taking their money and orphaning their children in this gothic Depression fable. A “false prophet” fond of quoting scripture in his rural travels, he embodies the risk to children during hard times. Correlative to this is a predatory universe, Nature “red in tooth and claw.” We watch a fox leap upon unseen prey; we hear a rabbit give up a death-squeal as an owl in a tree leaves the frame for its meal-time descent. All this reflects on the vulnerability of “little ones.” But children are tough; they adapt; they “abide and endure.”
     In Night of the Hunter Ben is nine, Pearl, four. After Powell murders their mother, Willa Harper, Ben and Pearl flee, with their stepfather in hot pursuit. Powell is after Pearl’s doll—a corrupted innocent thing—inside which is hidden money that their real father stole. The pair are taken in by Rachel Hooper (Lillian Gish, brilliant), who cares for poor children to compensate for her estrangement from her grown son. A person of faith, Rachel matches wits and will with Powell, eventually capturing him and turning him over to the law.
     Charles Laughton atmospherically directed from James Agee’s fine adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel. Assisted by art director Hilyard Brown and black-and-white cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Laughton sculpted in darkness and light, correlative to the battle between evil and good, with church steeple-like triangular cut-outs in both Willa’s bedroom and basement. Laughton also created movie screen-like openings in the mise-en-scène, paying homage to cinema.
     Upon its initial release, this film was ridiculously ignored, dismissed; now it is ridiculously overrated. Three things cut into its level of achievement: thin material; sluggish pace; the incompetent acting of Shelley Winters as Willa.

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