The Night of the Hunter

Year: 1955
Production Co: Paul Gregory Productions
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: James Agee
Writer: Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Peter Graves

Like most film fans I've been seeing the iconic still of Robert Mitchum with his deep south, wide-brimmed preacher hat, black suit and tie, his hand over the fencepost with the word 'love' tattooed on his knuckles for years and assumed he was the prototype for a thousand badass bad guys who'd inspired everyone from Sergio Leone to Quentin Tarantino.

And yes, taking into account the styles of the era there are some great images where good cinematography and set design combined with the shocking predation of and threat towards children that would have shocked audiences in the moid 50s (and still would today).

But it's one of those examples of the styles of the era looming too large over the premise to ignore. As fake preacher Harry Powell, Mitchum looks like the kind of character that always moves slowly, speaks in a low, threatening voice, hides in the shadows, has a cigarette in his fingers or lips, and never blinks.

But I found some of the creative approaches in the movie too all over the place to really keep up with the qualities the visual behind the character seemed to promise. A good example is when the kindly, brusque foster matron Rachel (Lillian Gish) sees him off with a blast from her shotgun and Harry squeals like a teenage girl and runs off into the barn like a hurt animal.

There are too many sequences where he's too animated, his eyes too comically wide (reminding me of another lauded actor I find painfully overripe, Toshiro Mifune) and too full of manic movement. Instead of a stoic horror movie icon, he was more like Yosemite Sam in a Looney Tunes cartoons.

It's the Great Depression and Harry (Mitchum) poses as a priest, making his living targeting rich widows and killing them to get their fortunes. His latest mark is Willa (Shelly Winters, youthful and svelte and not at all how you remember her if you're a Gen-X fan of The Posiedon Adventure), whose husband Ben he shared a jail cell with after a stolen car rap. Ben was banged up for stealing the loot from two bank robbery accomplices, but not before telling his kids John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) where it is and swearing them to secrecy.

With Ben having taken the location of the money with him to the gallows, Harry has no choice but to track down his family after he's released and work his magic. He feigns devotion to the lonely Willa and turns on the charm with the townspeople, but the wily John still doesn't trust him, knowing he's just there for the money.

Harry kills Willa in a fit of rage and the children are left alone with him, to all appearances a good stepfather but instead using sweet talk and threats to get the location of the money out of them.

John takes Pearl and the money and runs away, only just escaping Harry's clutches, and as they float downriver he gives chase, staying on their trail for days until they arrive at Rachel's. Immediately realising they're in trouble, the kindly but no-nonsense Rachel clean John and Pearl up, feeds them and takes them into her house with the other children.

But Harry hasn't given up, and when he learns where John and Pearl are holed up, he sets about taking them from Rachel – by force if necessary – to get the loot. What he doesn't count on is how steely and smart Rachel is, seeing quickly through his deception and resolving to protect the kids with deadly force if she has to.

You can read some Christian metaphors into it if you want, but I don't know if the direction by Charles Laughton or the script by James Agee intended any of them – all I got from it was a more or less straight story about how clever, determined and loyal some children are.

And yes, Mitchum looks every inch designed to appear on a hundred Best Movie Villain lists, but Harry Powell only works in small doses, certain sequences and still photos. Looking back on it with a more critical eye I probably would have been more impressed with how effectively it's lit and shot, with the shadows and gloomy corners portraying some very effective imagery from the scariest of the horror genre. But it was just too hard to look past the at-times hammy approach.

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