During the great American depression of the nineteen thirties to support his family young father Ben Harper is driven to crime. Arrested for robbery in front of his children, he is sentenced to hang. However, he has secreted the money he has stolen on his property and entrusted its whereabouts only to his children. Waiting for the gallows, Harper is enclosed in a cell with a preacher (Mitchum) incarcerated for automobile theft.
The audience learns from the start that Mitchum’s character is in fact a vicious killer. Posing as a preacher he finds lonely widows, insinuates his way into their lives, and murders them for their money. The condemned Harper reveals in his sleep that he has hidden money on his property. Once released the ‘preacher’ sets his sights on the widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters).
In synopsis Charles Laughton’s 1955 film sounds like a film noir, indeed there are stylistic and thematic elements of noir in the movie. Film noir largely arose due to a sudden influx of talented European directors arriving in Hollywood from the nineteen thirties onwards fleeing the rise of fascism. Laughton is clearly influenced by European film, but goes back further incorporating elements of German Expressionism. When the Harper children are forced to flee by boat pursued by Mitchum, the film transforms from noirish thriller into gothic fairy tale. The film’s deliberate variation of tone is reflected by Walter Schumann’s score which goes from full blown Universal horror bass tones to Walt Disney flutes.
Mitchum delivers a villain for the ages, the fingers of his left hand tattooed H-A-T-E, his right L-O-V-E. He uses his fists to illustrate the story of Cain and Abel with a slick line of patter inveigling his way into the affections of forlorn women. The character’s murderous intentions are not merely for financial gain, a psychopathic misogyny is graphically revealed when he visits a burlesque show and aroused/revolted by a dancer releases the blade of a flick-knife which slices through his pant-leg at the crotch. A piece of symbolism that still has the power to draw gasps today.
Mitchum is the big bad wolf. Late in the film, he lays siege to a farmhouse in which the children have been sheltered by a kindly but tough old widow (a great Lillian Gish, toting a pump action shotgun as well as any action star). He sings a traditional hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ (the tune is used as a leitmotif for the character, and becomes as sinister as the music from Jaws). He may as well be yelling ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”
Like Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life and Blade Runner, Night of the Hunter flopped both critically and commercially upon release only to later join the pantheon of American film classics. Most likely stung by the reception his film received Laughton would never direct another feature. I would like to believe that perhaps since he had achieved as close to perfection as a work of art can get he chose exit on a high.
This review was originally published in the Verite Film Magazine blog http://www.veritefilmmag.com