Until I saw The Night of the Hunter, it had been a long time since I had gasped while watching a movie. Forget The Others and The Deep End (which veered toward strained dramatics), The Night of the Hunter is by far the scariest movie I’ve seen so far this year. Even though the movie is nearly 50 years old and there’s a not drop of blood to be seen.
Luckily, The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s first and final directing gig, has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and is being re-released in October 2001. So, there’s still plenty of time to spill your popcorn all over the place.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a reverend with a nasty habit of courting and then killing widows for their cash. His newest target is young mother Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), whose murderer husband Ben (Peter Graves) has hidden $10,000 somewhere. Powell finds out about the stash and decides to court Mrs. Harper after he’s released and Ben is hanged. But finding the money isn’t easy for Powell, who must contend with his stepchildren (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), who know where the money is, but aren’t telling.
The hard part about seeing a classic now is the pop culture monster has usually drawn and quartered and then flaunted all the memorable moments, thus ruining the spontaneity and adventure when we finally watch it for the first time. How many spoofs or salutes to the shower scene in Psycho have we seen in other movies? What about the brilliant baby stroller sequence from Battleship Potemkin? (No, I’m not blaming Brian De Palma entirely for this sampling problem.)
Yes, there are some visual elements that other directors seem to have borrowed from The Night of the Hunter. Powell’s ‘love’ and ‘hate’ knuckle tattoos obviously influenced Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (remember Radio Raheem?). And Powell’s black suit, with black tie and white shirt, could have shaped Quentin Tarantino’s early visual style.
Seeing The Night of the Hunter for the first time, I was amazed at how much it crackled with wicked wit and fright and how much intensity was intact. You can now sign me up as president of the Robert Mitchum Fan Club. He plays the role with a controlled malice that induces unease every time he appears. He’s like the senior class president with an evil streak. If I ever need to stay awake, I’ll just picture him crooning, ‘Leaning… leaning….’ Any actor who wants to play a character with a touch of evil should study his performance the way a rabbinical student studies the Torah.
And credit must be handed out to Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who create a series of haunting, surreal shadowy images over the rural Depression-era backdrop. It’s a testament to both men that they’re able to invigorate what has become a hackneyed storyline (kids harassed by evil guardians) by sticking to the old maxim that we’re more scared by what we don’t see.
Screenwriter and legendary film critic James Agee does a beautiful job giving shape and substance to an array of supporting characters: the drunk Birdie (James Gleason) who’s haunted by his wife, and the Spoons (Evelyn Varden and Walt Spoon) whose marriage has become a verbal vaudeville act.
The only lapse is the movie’s third act, when Pearl and John run away from home and find a home with the motherly, Bible-reading Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish). Her showdown with Powell is memorable — a battle done with dueling hymns. However, the whole segment feels a little rushed and underdone, but it’s still a thrill seeing the queen of the silent film era handling a shotgun.
Do yourself favor and don’t miss this if it comes to a nearby theater.
Note: A series of revealing, but overlong, outtakes preceded the movie. The highlights included the legendary Laughton (who sounds eerily like Mr. Pitt from Seinfeld) running Winters’ lines with Mitchum, and the adorable, tiny Bruce having trouble descending a coal pile. Hours more of such footage exists, as Laughton liked to keep the cameras constantly rolling.