A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton
There are any number of horror films in the library's collection that would make for potent Halloween viewing, from silent classics like Nosferatu (1922) to modern works such as The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), and Saw (2004). However, it is outside of traditional horror that we find a villain more frightening than most, Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Masquerading as a preacher in order to marry widows and murder them for their money, Powell is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. Powell himself feels he is doing God's work by disposing of sinful women (any woman who arouses desire in men or who acts upon her own carnal desires is a sinner in his book), and that God rewards him with the money of his victims.
After being arrested for auto theft, Powell shares a prison cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stashed $10,000 in stolen cash somewhere in his house before his arrest, then made his two children swear to keep the location a secret. After failing to obtain the location of the money from Harper before his execution, Powell proceeds to charm his way into the life of Harper's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two young children, nine year-old John and four year-old Pearl. John is suspicious of Powell from the start, and soon realizes that he is after the money. After Willa overhears Powell trying to force Pearl to reveal the money's location, Powell disposes of her, telling the locals that she ran off. The children narrowly escape and flee downriver with Powell in pursuit, eventually finding refuge alongside a handful of other orphaned children in the home of the Bible-fearing, strong-willed Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish), whose determination to protect her young wards leads to a tense showdown with Powell.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by the lauded actor Charles Laughton, best known for his portrayals of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Laughton crafted a singular film of incredibly striking visual fantasy, a melange of suspense thriller, fairy tale, morality play, expressionistic nightmare, and film noir. Many scenes provide haunting images that linger in the viewer's mind: Willa's dead body behind the wheel of her car at the bottom of the river, her hair wafting gently with the seaweed; the exaggerated shadow of Powell's silhouette as it is cast on John and Pearl's bedroom wall the night before he first appears in town; Mrs. Cooper leading the children down the sidewalk, looking remarkably like a mother duck with her ducklings trailing close behind.
Mitchum oozes pure menace in a chilling performance, revealing dangerous qualities would also serve him well in his performance as vengeful ex-con Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962). Note the scene where he stands at the top of the cellar stairs, calling down to the hiding John and Pearl ("Chillll ... dren?!"), then clamors after them up the stairs, lunging with his arms outstretched like Frankenstein's monster. Mitchum makes Powell scarier than any otherworldly ghoul, a real-life monster bent on the slaughter of innocents to get what he wants.