#9. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Written by: James Agee (based on The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
The Night of the Hunter stands as legendary actor Charles Laughton’s only credit as a director – a role I very much wish he had revisited after his 1955 debut. The Night of the Hunter sees two siblings named John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) on the run after a manipulative preacher forces his way into their family in order to gain access to money their father took during a bank robbery gone bad. The bad man is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a serial killer who preys on what he finds to be “sinful” women. After the death of their mother, John and Pearl must flee to the safety of the countryside, or else meet the same fate as their beloved mother and father. The Night of the Hunter is a dark, almost film noir-esque fairy tale of a film – setting a dreamlike tone early on and never letting up. The atmosphere found in Laughton’s directorial debut is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, featuring beautiful black and white cinematography, dreamlike music, a charismatic and crazed main villain whose screen presence is undeniable, and some incredible scenery in the film’s last act. The photography from cinematographer Stanley Cortez is some of the best I’ve ever seen, combining washed out images and dark, shadowy noir-influenced visuals into one beautiful picture. Laughton’s prowess as a director is evident in the film’s pacing, which is frantic and never seems to miss a beat. Even when establishing main characters and the situations they’re unfortunately involved in, we’re only given the most important and crucial details. Together with writer James Agee, Laughton has managed to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and menacing villains in Reverend Harry Powell – whose LOVE-HATE knuckle tattoos and constant eerie singing of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has solidified his place in movie history. Robert Mitchum’s turn as the Reverend is creepy in his subtle moments, and downright terrifying when his motivations are finally revealed to young John and Pearl. The Reverend is not a sneaky villain – he always makes his presence known through his singing and whistling of hymns, which somehow makes his sinister approach all the more effective. The child performances of John and Pearl are admittedly the weakest part of The Night of the Hunter, but ultimately work as they are not asked to carry much dramatic weight – plus Sally Jane Bruce’s Pearl is undeniably adorable with her cute little accent. The most surprising performance is that of former silent movie star Lillian Gish, whose protective maternal figure appears very late in the film but somehow makes the entire situation of John and Pearl seem manageable and safe. Overall, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most complete suspense-thrillers ever made in Hollywood, featuring the amazing work of a man who absolutely should have directed again after this. The lead performance of Robert Mitchum is legendary, the dreamlike cinematography and tone is unforgettable, and the character of Reverend Harry Powell is legendary. The Night of the Hunter is one you absolutely cannot miss.