The Night of the Hunter – IMDB 232/250
We’re staying in the 1950s for the next film of my IMDb reviews, with Charles Loughton’s thriller The Night of the Hunter, starring film icon Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, a greedy and sadistic preacher and serial killer who marries widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), in the hope of stealing a large sum of money left to the family by Willa’s former husband Ben (Peter Graves).
Based on real life serial killer Harry Powers, The Night of the Hunter is a very dark thriller lead by Mitchum, who gives a very strong performance as the main villain of the film.
Harry Powell is portrayed as an extremely evil man. Posing as a preacher, it is clear Powell is a very religious man, at least religious to a point to justify his own actions, with essentially his own take and beliefs on Christianity. And like many psychopath portrayals in film Powell is shown to be very charismatic and charming, with Mitchum handling his performance expertly to create a memorable film villain.
He allures Willa and the whole community with his religious sermons, promising to show Willa the road to salvation, and even when she sees Powell for who he truly is she still is utterly devoted to him and God, saying she doesn’t care he is after the money, he was sent down by God himself to save her from a life of sin.
Mitchum isn’t over the top in his portrayal. He is silently powerfully at times, (this film was heavily influenced by silent films), with his powerful voice giving purpose to his words, particularly in his sermon of right hand (LOVE) and left hand (hate), which means we can believe that the whole community would fall for his charm.
This is also highlighted in his powerful and soulful singing voice, which seems to charm and beguile those around him (like Kaa in The Jungle Book – random reference but just came to me).
Laughton’s portrayal of humanity is quite a dark one as well. Like Powell, many of the films characters are shown to be greedy and very vengeful, as shown in the lynch mob for Powell towards the end of the film from people who were all to quick to praise him before. This rather bleak portrayal of society is in complete contrast to my previous film on this list Roman Holiday with its much lighter tone and cheerful look. Rome looked a lot nicer than West Virginia I have to say.
But other than Mitchum’s performance this film was a real chore to watch. The performances of Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce as the young kids John and Pearl Harper really gave light to the saying never work with children, as their rather uninterested performances really lacked the emotion that was needed for some of the films key moments.
The character of Icey Spoon was truly infuriating as well, and although that was probably the point of her character she really made the film hard to watch. But really I think I just found the film boring.
Hidden in the slow moving, dark pacing of the film was a really interesting story to be told, but The Night of the Hunter didn’t build any real hype, tension or sadness. Powell is eventually tamely defeated, and the deaths of John and Pearls parents seem to have little effect on the children. The whole film felt a little emotionless to me.
The film is shot to create this bleak atmosphere, highlighting the sinister and nightmarish character of Harry Powell. Yet the ending is very sweet – with the feeling of a wholesome Christian finality to it, which took away from the overall dark setting of the film which was one of the main strengths of the movie.
Roger Ebert described this as ‘one of the most frightening of movies’ and many film magazines have it as one of the top films of all time, but I just thought it was all so flat, it didn’t really lead anywhere, with the pacing at times sluggish, (particularly when John and Pearl are floating away on the boat endlessly).
I can see why Mitchum’s performance is so fondly remembered, and I think Powell is a memorable villain, but this film just felt so very dated. I think if they remade it today with modern techniques this is a story I could really enjoy.
But until that day, The Night of the Hunter isn’t something I will be going back to watch in a hurry.
The Night of the Hunter: 2/10