I’m not the biggest fan of movies from the 1950s just because the majority of the ones that I’ve seen are kind of straightforward, especially compared to the dark and gritty noir films of the 1930s and 1940s. However, one movie from the 1950s really sticks out when it comes to style and storytelling. This is Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Taking inspiration from both German Expressionism and D.W. Griffith’s silent films, Laughton created a movie that may have been a bit too much at the time, but is now regarded as a horror/thriller classic.
When family man Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is thrown in prison for robbery and murder, he meets a preacher by the name of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He tells Powell of the thousands of dollars he stole and how it is hidden somewhere on his property. After Ben’s execution, Powell quickly proceeds to woo and wed Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Everyone quickly falls for the charm and eloquence of Powell, but Ben’s son John (Billy Chapin) knows better. When John makes his move to get his little sister, the money, and himself away from their new stepfather, Powell goes on a rampage of violence that won’t stop until he has the money.
Recently when I reviewed The Tenant, I mentioned that it was an example of how horror should be, and I have the same exact thing to say about The Night of the Hunter, but for completely different reasons. This entire movie feels like a dream from childhood that haunts you for the rest of your life. Harry Powell is as much a boogie man as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddie Kreuger, but even more so since he is seen through the eyes of a child. Anyone who tells me that the hymn Powell is constantly singing while being shot from afar entirely in silhouette isn’t at least a little scary is lying. Simply put, he’s one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time.
Upon its initial release, this film did horribly both with critics and audiences alike, and that shows how ahead of its time the movie was, especially since we are able to fully appreciate it now. Laughton drew a lot of inspiration from D.W. Griffith’s silent films and early German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Just looking at the picture above, you can see all the shadows and how the room seems distorted. There’s also a great scene where two children stand in front of houses that are obviously painted. This is an extremely odd looking, but beautiful movie, which reinforces what I say when it feels like a nightmare you would have as a small child. The over the top style combined with the fact that its about a preacher threatening to kill children while murdering women for money is pretty polarizing, especially for being made in the 1950s.
I can’t go through this review without drooling all over Robert Mitchum’s out of this world performance as Harry Powell, or even just drooling over how well written the character actually is. I said before that he is one of the best villains in movie history, and I say that with complete confidence. Mitchum was known before this as playing a cool sort of hero/antihero, but Powell is over the top and memorable for that reason. He’s manipulative but at the same time a cowardly weasel who has no problem running from a fight with someone as big as he is. He targets to children for heaven’s sake. Mitchum nails this crazy character with every aspect from his performance from his steadily escalating voice to the eerily perfect posture he has throughout the movie.
The Night of the Hunter is one of the most memorable, haunting, and beautifully shot movies you will probably ever see and it’s amazing how it was so negatively received when it was first released. Unfortunately, Laughton would never direct another film and died only a few years later in the early 1960s. This is a horror movie that comes straight from a child’s worst nightmares that will still haunt an adult of any age. It’s an amazing horror film from the 1950s that inspired film makers from David Lynch to Spike Lee to the Coen Brothers.