ClassicFlix (Teen Scene) – Review #14: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

From March 2015 to April 2017, I was writing the monthly Teen Scene column for the website ClassicFlix. My objective was to promote classic films among teenagers and young adults. Due to the establishing of a new version of the website, it’s now more difficult to access to the old version and read the reviews. But, I’m allowed to publish my reviews on my blog 30 days after they had been published on ClassicFlix! So, I decided to do so as you could have an easy access to them. If you are not a teenager, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure you can enjoy them just the same! My fourteenth review was for the 1955’s classic The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laugthon. Enjoy!

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Charles Laughton was known as one of the most prolific actors of the 20th-century with films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Witness for the Prosecution, and Spartacus. But in 1954 he started working on what would be his only film as a director. Unfortunately, upon release in 1955, The Night of the Hunter wasn’t a commercial success, nor a critical one. Nevertheless, the film is acclaimed today as one of the best of the ’50s and as a brilliant film noir.

The Night of the Hunter is based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb and set during the Great Depression. Its central character is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a dangerous serial killer. The film starts with the arrest of Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who has just committed a hold-up, killing two people. He arrives at home and hides the money with his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) the only ones who know where it is; both swear not to tell anyone.

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Ben is arrested with the scene being witnessed by his kids and wife, Wilma (Shelley Winters). In the jail where he waits to be hanged, he shares a cell with Harry Powell, who has been condemned to spend some time in prison for stealing a car. Ben talks in his sleep and Harry discovers he has hidden some stolen money, no less than $10,000. After Ben’s death, Harry’s objective is to get his hands on the money and decides to become Willa Harper’s next husband.

Charmed by him, and looking for a new father for her children, Willa doesn’t take much time before marrying the dangerous man. Willa doesn’t know where the money is hidden, but Powell suspects the children know where it is leaving them in constant danger.

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Lead actor, Robert Mitchum, claimed Charles Laughton was one of the best directors he worked with and this was Mitchum’s favorite movie he acted in. Of course, with such motivation, the results couldn’t be anything else but fantastic. On his side, Charles Laughton agreed Robert Mitchum was one of the best actors ever, so both had winning teamwork, bringing out the best in each other. Charles Laughton himself described the character of Harry Powell as “diabolical” and that’s really what he is! We believe in this description of the character because Robert Mitchum puts all his good human qualities aside to embody one of the meanest characters in movie history.

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Charles Laughton didn’t really like directing children, but Sally Jane Bruce and Billy Chapin as Pearl and John give us credible performances, especially little Billy Chapin, who is as much able to move from a feeling of suffering to a feeling of joy. His physical resemblance to Peter Graves, who plays his father is proof of his being a great choice for the part. Sally Jane Bruce portrays one of the most adorable little girls in film. She is very naive, but some of her reactions are so adorable that she does nothing but win our love.

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Shelley winters described her performance as “the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave” and we know what she means. There’s a beautiful modesty in her acting perfectly suited to her character. We feel she is thinking well about her actions and knows how to transposed them on screen.

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Robert Mitchum aside, the other great performance of the film is by the one and only Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper. Rachel is a strong, generous woman and one of the best female heroines in movie history. In her early 60s, Lillian Gish illustrates her experience as an actress, and her performance as Rachel remains a favorite. The film certainly wouldn’t have been the same without her. The Night of the Hunter is a dark film, but Lillian Gish and her character, Rachel add a ray of light to make us realize there’s always hope.

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The film cost less than $800,000 to produce and despite its plot it remains a simple and beautiful film. Its visual dimension is one of its best qualities. Stanly Cortez, who also worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons, took care of the cinematography. How can we forget the scene where Pearl and John sail in the boat at night? The nature, with its vegetation and its animals is filmed in a surreal quality. It’s neat, showing us detail and the contrast between the dark night and the moonlight adds magic and poetry to the film. It’s hard believing The Night of the Hunter didn’t receive at least an Oscar nomination for its cinematography.

Aside from its brilliant acting and cinematography, The Night of the Hunter also has a well-written script. The way the characters evolve in the film is well developed; one of the best character evolutions is John’s. He’s the one who gains the most experience and wisdom from this unfortunate adventure. The film also contains some memorable quotes and dialogues, one of the best being Harry Powell’s speech explaining why “Love” and “Hate” are tattooed on his knuckles. There are also many other quotes that terrify us, make us smile, make us laugh or make us sad. Here are some examples:

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– Rachel Cooper: “I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this world and I know it too.”

– Harry Powell: “Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord…”

– Pearl [to John who just threw a hairbrush on Harry Powell’s head]: “You hit Daddy with a hairbrush!” (The way she says it is hilarious.)

Another important thing to notice is the score, composed by Walter Schumann, who knew how to perfectly compose the right music to illustrate the film’s visual and narrative dimensions. It’s terrifying music at some moments when associated with Harry Powell, or it can be joyful depending on the scene. We also hear songs such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” sung by Robert Mitchum with his beautiful, deep voice.

Sally Jane Bruce originally sang “Pretty Fly,” but Betty Benson dubbed her in the end. If we pay attention to its lyrics, “Pretty Fly” perfectly illustrates the children’s situation. Night of the Hunter’s most memorable musical moment is when Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” together. Rachel protects the children from this dangerous man, but finds a way to connect with him by singing the same song as him for a truly powerful moment.

There’s so much to say about The Night of the Hunter, but you’ll need to discover the rest by yourself. If you haven’t seen the film ignore its poor reception on its release, and make sure to immediately dive into this mysterious, intriguing world.

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One thought on “ClassicFlix (Teen Scene) – Review #14: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. Definitely a classic. It’s too bad that Laughton didn’t direct any more. And Billy Chapin was amazing here! I don’t know why he didn’t become a big star.
    Nice review, Virginie 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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