Until the other day, I was sure I had never seen The Night of the Hunter. Yet, as I watched I had a few moments of déjà vu and it brought back my childhood weariness of boisterous preachers. From the harping televangelist, to a broad rimmed hat spouting trite ideas on faith, I somehow grew up with an odd suspicion of many ministers, most of whom where probably very decent men. Robert Mitchum’s character here is the is the icon of evil men who use religion as a cloak to lure the trusting masses in and I was ever mindful to not be the next chump. It makes me wonder now if I might have seen The Night of the Hunter as a small child and have no solid memory of the event. Is there such thing a repressed cinematic memory?
In the movie, the phony preacher learns of a newly widowed woman, whose husband hid ten thousand dollars he stole somewhere near their home. When this man, Harry (Mitchum), finds the widow and her two children, he turns on his preacher-man charm and wins over everyone but the son, John (Billy Chapin). Skeptical John and his doll-faced little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know where the money is hidden, but promised their dead father they would never tell anyone where, not even their mother. After Harry marries their mother (Shelly Winters), he becomes even more menacing and inescapable. The more he asks where the money is, the more he pits their naive mother against the children. Eventually, the children have no choice but to run, joining other wandering children of the depression era. But Harry is a cunning and tireless hunter, always pursuing them.
Mitchum created one of the most unforgettable characters in classic cinema in The Night of the Hunter. Harry is perfectly menacing with his booming voice. The way he can almost always keep it so calm and cheerful with every word patiently elongated only heightens the tension he creates, especially in his threats. And the respectable Reverend act he puts on to gain trust everywhere he goes is despicable. Loosely paraphrasing a bible story, singing and letting little ones sit on your knee seems like the small town trifecta for acceptance. And the songs he always sings always have a lingering air of dread in them. I get chills just thinking about him singing, “Leaning… leaning… leaning on the everlasting arms.”
The film is full of haunting images, a few of which contributed to that bit of déjà vu. Some of them make the film have an oppressive feeling, like a horror film. One that people remember most from this movie are the tattoos on Harry’s knuckles, reading LOVE on the right and HATE on the left. Part of me is afraid to wonder if there is a different story as to how Harry got those. The image of Harry on a horse in the distance is wonderfully unsettling, especially when you think about how far away he is and how close his voice sounds. And without giving anything away, that underwater shot has the same kind of eerie beauty present in the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard.
It is interesting to think of the film as an odd type of modern fairy tale. It focuses on the children, their struggles and most of the adults around them are useless against Harry, who is the obvious monster. A wolf disguised as a sheep if you will. Many times, the point of these types of stories back in Grimm’s time was to give children guidance against good and evil. Perhaps The Night of the Hunter serves to help children uncover evil lurking under clever disguises.
Unfortunately, The Night of the Hunter was received so poorly, it made Charles Laughton vow to never direct another film again. And sadly, he stuck to that promise. It did not earn any Oscar nominations. No awards at all for that matter. However, it is in the National Film Registry. Today, classic film buffs still clamor about the wonderfully artistic images throughout the film and revel in Mitchum’s magnificent character.
“I can hear you whisperin’ children, so I know you’re down there. I can feel myself gettin’ awful mad. I’m out of patience children. I’m coming to find you now.”