Directed By: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Tag line: "The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, BUT ABOVE ALL... THE SUSPENSE!"
Trivia: Charles Laughton originally offered the role of Harry Powell to Gary Cooper, who turned it down as being possibly detrimental to his career
An actor of immense talent, Charles Laughton is best remembered for his many notable performances, giving his all in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Private Life of Henry VIII and Witness for the Prosecution, just to name a few. Throughout his lengthy career, Laughton would make only one film from the other side of the camera, directing the 1955 thriller, The Night of the Hunter, and after watching it, you'll wish he'd taken that director’s chair more often.
While in prison, condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) tells his cellmate his cellmate, a self-proclaimed preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), the story of how he stole $10,000, then hid the money somewhere in his house. Shortly after Harper is executed, Powell is released, and in the hopes of getting his hands on the hidden money, heads directly to Harper’s house, where he seduces his widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and tries to cozy up to their suspicious children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Under the pretext of doing the lord’s work, the murderous Powell first marries, then kills Willa, causing the children, the only ones who know the whereabouts of the stolen money, to flee in horror.
Much of the notoriety The Night of the Hunter has achieved over the years must be attributed to Robert Mitchum, who plays a man of God unlike any the cinematic world has ever seen, rattling off quotes from the good book in a voice that cracks with venomous hatred. The true stars of this picture, however, are Laughton and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez (who also lent his talents to such classic films as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor). With The Night of the Hunter, Cortez and Laughton unite to create images as powerful as any the cinema has ever produced. One such image, arguably the most potent in the film, is the abhorrent yet beautiful shot of the murdered Willa, whose body rests in the front seat of a car that now sits at the bottom of a lake. Showing her hair flowing gently in the calm and peaceful current, Laughton and Cortez have brought exquisiteness to mayhem, revealing the darkest, most repulsive recesses of the human soul, yet doing so with unbridled majesty.
Even though Laughton would never direct another film, we can take solace in the fact that we at least have The Night of the Hunter to enjoy. A taut, gripping drama filled to the breaking point with incredible visuals, The Night of the Hunter is much more than one of the most impressive debuts for a first-time director; it's one of the finest movies ever made.