Friday, September 10, 2010

Review - The Night of the Hunter

September 10, 2010

The Night of the Hunter – U.S., 1955

I’m of two minds about Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. If someone were to proclaim it a masterpiece of cinematography and imagery, praise it for its genius use of shadows and light, and laud the performances of its entire cast, I would probably find myself agreeing for the most part. Yet if someone were to call it an odd, disjointed film with abrupt moments of overacting and illogical decision-making by a few of its central characters, I would be unable to find fault with that assessment either. After all, if someone told me he’d be back later to kill someone, I’d be on the phone with authorities faster than you could say get off my property, regardless of whether they would trample my flower bed.

The Night of the Hunter has a doozey of a premise. The central character is a man named Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum), a self-proclaimed preacher who just also happens to be a murderer and a thief. In the film’s opening scene, we see him driving at a rather leisurely pace, talking aloud to his god in much the same way we have seen preachers in other films do – his voice resounds with a thoughtful, appreciative tone, as if he is truly grateful for all that has been given to him. And just what is it that he has to be thankful for? Nothing less than ill-gotten gains, the life savings of young widows whom he wooed and murdered, and his continual escape from authorities. Powell himself puts the number of widows that he has killed somewhere between six and twelve, and he shows no remorse for his deeds, proclaiming perfume, “lacey things” and curly hair to be stuff that the Lord hates. In fact, just the sight of these sinful things is enough to make him open the black and white switchblade he conveniently carries in his pocket. It’s an almost Pavlovian reaction.

Much of The Night of the Hunter has to do with Powell’s attempts to retrieve ten thousand dollars that a cell mate of his named Ben Harper (Peter Graves) hid just before he was arrested. After Harper’s death sentence is carried out, Powell makes his way to the town where the man’s widow lives. His arrival is one of the best shots in the film. As Ben’s young son John (Billy Chapin) is reassuring his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) that he will always protect her, even striking a pose somewhat akin to that commonly seen on posters of Superman, Powell’s menacing shadow appears on the wall behind John, foreshadowing the coming battle between good and evil. Powell wants the money, and only John and Pearl know where it is. And thus begins a struggle for something that realistically neither one of them should have.

There’s part of me that wants to go along with the masses and proclaim The Night of the Hunter to be a masterpiece. The good people over at Spectre magazine agree with this assessment so strongly that they recently ranked the film #1 on their list of the fifty greatest films of all time, and while I don’t usually put much stock in lists of this kind, when a film is given the top spot on any list, I tend to take notice. On the one hand, there is a lot to praise The Night of the Hunter for. For one thing, the film is consistently involving and terrifying. Powell is truly menacing, and viewers will likely find themselves worrying about the safety of Ben Harper’s family. In addition, Powell’s effect on Ben Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) is utterly fascinating, as well as tragic. Powell convinces her that it was she who was responsible for turning her husband into a thief, and in one truly terrifying scene, we see Willa confess her horrible love of material possessions to Powell’s congregation. The scene is dark and illuminated only by a few lit torches, giving it the feeling of one of the Salem witch trials instead of a church service. In a later scene, Powell tells John, “It’s me your mother believes,” revealing the depths to which Willa has fallen under Powell’s spell. The final duel between Powell, the false preacher, and Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish), for whom religion is a powerful force for good, is both suspenseful and beautiful simultaneously. They even sing a duet together, which doesn’t exactly fit the genre, but perhaps fits the circumstances.

And yet I can’t completely get over just how strange some moments of the film are – Powell’s oddly ineffective explanation of the words written out on his knuckles, Pearl’s sudden lullaby as she and her brother are floating down a river on a small row boat, the way Ms. Rachel Copper keeps turning to the camera and speaking to the audience, the final’s final monologue about children’s ability to endure all kinds of hardship. Was that really what the film was about? Strange moments can sometimes diminish a film, snapping viewings back to reality and making them question what they see rather than being involved in it. Thankfully, this does not happen too often in The Night of the Hunter.

Despite a few misgivings about the film, I remain incredibly impressed with it, though perhaps a little more impressed with the technical aspects of the film than the narrative aspects. For the most part, Mitchum is extraordinary as Preacher Powell, although there are a few noticeable moments of overacting, such as the moment when Powell gets his hand caught in the basement door. Young Billy Chapin is believable as well, and it was a joy to finally be able to hear the legendary Lillian Gish’s voice. While I’m not yet ready to declare the film a masterpiece, I remain of the opinion that the film is a remarkable piece of work. Perhaps my esteem will grow even more upon repeat viewings. (on DVD; the Criterion Collection will release the film on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 16, 2010.)

4 stars

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