The Night of the Hunter is a film that’s now recognised as an American classic. Part gothic horror and part unsettling fairytale, it tells the story of nefarious Harry Powell, a sadistic self-proclaimed preacher who kills a widow and relentlessly pursues her runaway children to get his hands on their money. Encompassing those most American of subjects: religion, money and sex but with an overarching strangeness aided by the stylistic use of expressionistic filmmaking techniques, the film has stood the test of time and still has the ability to unnerve today.
On first release in 1955 though, the film was a critical and commercial failure. It baffled audiences as it wasn’t a movie that was easy to categorise. With a style that borrowed heavily on German expressionism, a tone that was by turns horrific and comedic and a jarringly joyous soundtrack that was at odds with the brutality of the story, contemporary audiences had no idea what to make of it. Was it a horror film? A religious parable? A comment on the economic depression? Or none of these things? It wasn’t clear, and so the movie proceeded to slip under the radar.
In the decades since though, The Night of the Hunter has come to be lauded by luminaries such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers all claiming it as an influence, whilst several critics (including Roger Ebert) have cited it is one of the greatest American movies ever made.
Certainly, the character of Harry Powell (based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers who slaughtered several widows and their children in West Virginia in the 1940s) is a uniquely-terrifying villain. His guise as a lone preacher who wanders the depression-era Midwest butchering widows for their fortune, utterly convinced of his righteousness, makes him one of the most compelling madmen in cinema. Not to mention a pretty cynical statement about religion in America, and those ‘false prophets’ who operate within it.
Robert Mitchum oozes creepiness in the role. There’s something deeply unnerving about his constant singing of the hymn ‘Leaning, Leaning’, as he prowls around. Likewise, his tattooed knuckles bearing the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are a chilling indication of his underlying psychosis. Spike Lee later referenced this in Do the Right Thing with the character of Radio Raheem, who brandished similar tattoos.
Strangely though, the character of Harry Powell is often made to look rather laughable. When he chases the children up the basement stairs only to fall and trip and then get his fingers stuck in the door, he comes across clown-like. When Powell is shot by Miss Cooper at the end, he hops off into the barn whooping in pain as he goes, coming across entirely buffoon-like. Giving him this comedy air at times is a peculiar touch to his character, but somehow adds to his deranged nature. Having a bad guy that is one minute a scripture-quoting demented killer of women and children, and the next comically falling up stairs is disconcerting to say the least, and one of the many things that sets this film apart from a conventional thriller.
Stylistically the film was very much at odds with the Hollywood realism of the time. The black and white cinematography (a deliberate choice on the director’s part as colour film was already in use by then) is highly striking and makes heavy use of shadows, silhouettes and sharp contrasts. This kind of stylised cinematography was indebted to German expressionism, which placed emphasis on creating mood and emotion rather than directly reflecting physical reality.
This deliberately expressionistic style generates some of the most iconic images in the film. Images such as the shadow of the preacher across young John’s face as he tells his little sister a story, the chapel-like bedroom when Powell murders the children’s mother and the distant silhouette of the preacher on horseback as he hunts down the children, are all highly stylised but extremely effective in adding to the chilling tone.
One of the most haunting images, though, is of Willa’s corpse tied to the seat of her car at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting with the seaweed in the water’s current. It’s a startling shot, simultaneously haunting and beautiful, and somehow made more disturbing by the dream-like music which accompanies it.
This sense of dreaminess is recurring and lends the film a noticeably surreal air. The oddly artificial-looking house and river, the creatures that observe the children as they float downstream (surely a nod to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn) and the saintly old woman who rescues them, are all reminiscent of a fairytale. For all the horror, there’s also something of a children’s fantasy story in there. Melding the two gives the film a very distinctive feel.
The Night of the Hunter was lost on audiences at the time because it seemed to encompass so many different filmic elements. Watching it in retrospect though, it’s precisely this amalgamation of horror, surrealism and stylized cinematography that makes it such a great film. It works on a number of levels and it’s easy to see its influence on modern day cinema. From David Lynch’s dark surreal commentary on suburban America in the likes of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet to any of the comedic villains that regularly turn up the films of the Coen brothers, it was all originally there in The Night of the Hunter. Subsequently, when taking into consideration the directors it influenced decades later, it’s not hard to see why it’s now frequently referenced as one of the greatest American movies of all time.
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