I am cheating a bit here, as I wrote this piece for another blogathon earlier this year. However, I missed the due date for this month’s Blindspot, and rather than speed-writing a brand new piece that would probably turn out crappy, I thought I’d watch this classic for a second time and rewrite this as thoroughly as I could, as Night of the Hunter was on my Blindspot list originally (something I managed to forget when originally writing it!) and it was a movie that I needed to see again. Additionally, I like the Blindspot blogathon and want to stick it out, as I have movies I simply -must- see on my list!!
The Night of The Hunter is an eerie and highly symbolic film, a deceptively simple tale of good versus evil. The ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, representing evil is our villain: Preacher Harry Powell. He is a conman who dresses as a preacher to misguide suspicion. However, he also sincerely believes he is a man of God. Near the beginning of the film, we see his casual attitude to what he has already committed as he speaks to God: “How many has it been? Six?… Twelve? I disremember”.
‘Disremember’, ha! I’ll never forget that line. Harry Powell is the ultimate embodiment of a religious fanatic, taking the bible literally, clearly delusional as he decides that if God killed so many people, why can’t he?
After the film’s surreal opening, we are misled as we hear the sounds of children playing, but as the camera brings us down from high in the sky we see the children discovering the Preacher’s most recent victim. Not caught for that crime, he is soon caught driving a stolen car, and ends up in court. We then see the fate of another man, Ben Harper, who after stealing ten thousand dollars, gives his secret to his son and doesn’t break when questioned. We don’t see exactly where Harper decides to stash the money either, adding an element of tension and uncertainty to the story.
Sentenced to death, his short time spent in jail is in the same cell as our preacher. Harry Powell has decided that God has put him in this cell, with a man who he decides must have stashed that money. Somewhere, and it is his holy mission to retrieve it for himself.
Upon release, Powell decides to head to the town where Harper’s widow and two children reside, the children obviously representing the good in this story. The way the preacher first makes his presence to the children is truly chilling.
The use of shadows is not limited to this scene, as for the entirety of the film they are used in spectacular fashion. It is hard to imagine that this was a debut directorial effort, as the use of light and dark looks like that of a master, experienced, director. Just look below at how a simple scene inside a house is transformed into a surreal, almost disturbing image:
The film continues in a creepy direction as this conman quickly makes the widow his wife, and doesn’t waste his time in asking about the money. In a sequence filled with symbolic imagery that I am sure means something to a religious scholar, the children manage to escape the menacing Preacher by sailing up-river – a truly unforgettable sequence of events as the children become one with nature.
One shot in particular that stuck in my mind was the image of a cobweb placed over the scene of the children sailing downstream, the sort of inventive camerawork that is almost extinct today.
The preacher however is relentless in following them, often making his presence known by singing a hymn that sounds like a lullaby, but his intentions change the nature of the song entirely. After watching this I still cannot get those creepy lullabies out of my head.
“Leeeeeaning, leeeeaning, leaning on the everlaaaasting arms”
One thing I love about this film is that not only is it a tale of good versus evil, it is a story about an adult hunting down two children, who make it quickly apparent that they tougher than their looks would have you believe. It is also the perfect movie to illustrate the evils that can come from taking a holy book literally. The climax of the film is fantastic and is filled with suspense, while the ending is unlike too many films of today’s cinema; the meaning of it all is left to the viewer to decide.
Watching this reminded me of how I originally got into cinema – by working from the start through Kubrick’s filmography, followed by Polanski. I will always prefer their older films and they somehow feel more natural to me that recent film does. I was born four decades too late it seems, as older music and film has always evoked more emotion from me.
Overall, Night of the Hunter deserves its status as a classic. It is impeccably filmed and the acting is top notch, with Robert Mitchum’s deep voice adding even more menace to his preacher character. It is a real shame that Charles Laughton didn’t direct another film after this, as he clearly knew what he was doing. The camerawork here is top notch, as well as the symbolic imagery that is littered throughout the film. This is not a film to be missed, and anyone reading this needs to see it, soon!
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