Monday, August 4, 2008

#36: The Night of the Hunter


The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum (uncredited)
Written by James Agee and Charles Laughton (uncredited) (based on the novel by Davis Grubb)
Released September 29, 1955

Okay, before I review this movie, I have to just say this: Netflix, what the fuck are you doing sending out fullscreen versions of classic movies? Is this the only way this movie is available? Utter bullshit!

Whew. Sorry. Normally I wouldn't be this annoyed, but The Night of the Hunter is a groundbreaking movie from the mid-1950s that feels every bit like the Coen brothers went back in time to film their debut.

The film, the only movie ever directed by Charles Laughton, is a dark, electrifying masterpiece that features Robert Mitchum in one of his most frightening turns as a preacher (really, a "false prophet") who steals cars, carries a switchblade and has LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles. Mitchum played Max Cady in the original Cape Fear, and his work here as Harry Powell is equally unsettling.

As Hunter opens, Mitchum's preacher is thrown in jail for stealing a car (the police arrive just in time to save a burlesque dancer the agony of his knife), where he shares a cell with Peter Graves' Ben Harper, who is incarcerated and set to be hung for stealing $10,000 that the police have yet to uncover. Mitchum, offscreen, manages to figure out where Harper is from and where his family lives.

Soon, Mitchum's Powell is literally casting his huge shadow over the house of the Harper family. He slowly earns the confidence of the widow Harper (played by Shelley Winters) and her daughter. He meets resistance with Harper's son John, who may know where the $10,000 is hidden.

Within no time (and frankly, a bit abruptly), Powell and Ms. Harper are married, but Powell has no interest in her or their marriage. On their wedding night, he begins to break down her confidence, mentally abusing her from their first moments alone together by blaming her for the downfall of her previous husband.

From there, I really can't say much more than the shit really hits the fan.

I'd say it was a shame that Laughton never went on to direct another film, but Hunter is the kind of movie I can't imagine he could top, no matter how many more films he made. There are so many great shots and memorable images, like the foreboding arrival of Powell's train to the scene where the paper dolls that young Pearl Harper has cut from the hidden money go floating by Mitchum's legs. The music, the lighting (and the shadows), the editing... all are pitch perfect and largely ahead of their time.

The Night of the Hunter has been one of the most enjoyable discoveries for me in this first 10th of my yearlong project. I just can't believe I hadn't given this movie a shot before now.

For more on The Night of the Hunter:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Director Charles Laughton at Wikipedia

The official trailer:

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