Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#341. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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 sitting on the other side of the camera, helming the 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter, and after watching it, you'll wish, as I do, that he had taken the director’s chair more often! 

While in prison, condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) tells his cellmate, self-proclaimed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), of how he stole $10,000 in cash, 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 $10,000, heads directly to Harper’s house, where he seduces his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and tries to cozy up to the couple's suspicious children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Under the pretense of doing the lord’s work, the murderous Powell first marries, then kills Willa, causing the children, the only two who know the whereabouts of the stolen money, to flee in horror. 

Much of the success of The Night of the Hunter must be attributed to Robert Mitchum, who plays a man of God unlike any you've ever seen. Rattling off quotes from the good book in a voice that cracks with venom and hatred, it is a performance for the ages. 

The true stars of this picture, however, are Laughton and 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 conjure up moments as powerful as any the cinema has ever produced. One such image, arguably the film's most potent, is the abhorrent yet beautiful shot of the murdered Willa, her lifeless body resting in the front seat of a car sitting at the bottom of a lake. Showing her hair flowing gently in the calm and peaceful current, Laughton and Cortez have brought exquisiteness to the horrific, revealing the darkest, most repulsive recesses of the human soul, and doing so with unbridled majesty. 

Though Laughton would never direct another film, we can take solace in the fact that we at least have The Night of the Hunter. A taut, gripping thriller filled to its breaking point with incredible visuals, The Night of the Hunter is more than one of the most impressive directorial debuts in movie history; it is one of the finest films ever made.


Anonymous said...

this is one of my all time favs, doc. - Joe Mummy

DVD Infatuation said...

@Joe (or should I call you Mr. Mummy?). Thanks for stopping by! Always great to hear from a fellow "Jungle" co-host!

And I definitely concur with you on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. This film is in my top-50 of all time, and contains some truly shocking images (which may have been one of the key reasons it wasn't a success in 1955).

Thanks again for stopping by, sir, and for chiming in. It is definitely appreciated.

Talk to you soon!

$nake said...

Love this movie. Outside of the original "Cape Fear," my fave Mitchum flick.

DVD Infatuation said...

Snake: Thanks for the comment!

For me, HUNTER is Mitchum at his best. He was great in CAPE FEAR as well, but here, he knocked it out of the park.

Thanks again!