Charles Laughton’s 1959 thriller may have flopped at the box-office, but made land tilting for higher things; the cultural impact of this adaptation of a Davis Grubb novel. The author had been inspired, if that’s the right word, by tales of Depression-era hardship, and Laughton’s lyrical, ultra-vivid story of children in danger makes something of a parable of the hard-scrabble existence of its characters. But long before we secured the notion of elevated genre pieces, The Night of the Hunter took melodrama to a whole new level with the darkest of allusions and a dank, yet fairy-tale atmosphere that leads directly to Lynch, Fincher and more; it’s certainly one of the earliest, and the downright creepiest serial killers on film.
And that’s Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who rides a white horse like Death himself, although the Grim Reaper would be a more welcome presence. Disguised as a preacher, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers to better illustrate the good word he conveys to the innocent, con-man Powell ends up in the slammer in Ohio, West Virginia, where he happens upon bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves) on his way to the chair. Powell wants to know where the loot has been hidden, but Harper won’t tell, so Powell homes in on Harper’s widow (Shelley Winters) and his kids, John and Pearl, never guessing that Harper hid the cash inside Pearl’s ubiquitous doll…
That’s an intense, gripping set-up for genuine peril, but Laughton, using a tight grip of silent and expressionist cinematic techniques, takes the story in a wild new direction when the kids escape by boat to the cottage of shotgun-wielding granny Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who seems to have a magical, telepathic ability to connect with the flora and fauna of the swamp, in the form of frogs, rabbits, tortoises, spiders and all sorts. We’ve already been warned to ‘beware of false prophets’ but Powell is something else; with his flick-knife to hand, he’s a one-man cult guided by nothing but whatever ‘the religion the almighty and me cooked up betwixt us’, and Powell espouses a desire to carry out ‘my duty to bring peace and harmony betwixt them’. There’s a lot of ‘betwixt’ and ‘yonder’ in critic James Agee’s fiercely olde worlde script, with Powell making for one of cinema’s most terrifying villains. ‘Open that door, you spawn of the devil’s own strumpet!…you disgusting little wretches, you whores of Babylon!’ indicates Powell’s lack of balanced, child centred language; he’s the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, hoist by his own petard by the ingenuous disguise of the doll, which Laughton keeps constantly centre-stage throughout the action.
Despite the brilliance of The Night of the Hunter, shot by Welles’ cameraman Stanley Cortez, Laughton never directed another film after this, but he really didn’t have to; this one is perfect. Few performers have rung the sinister bell as effectively as Mitchum as Powell, and there are iconic, sensational moments like the shot of a car sitting on river’s floor, with the hair of one of Powell’s victims caught in the currents. ‘It’s a hard world for little things’ Cooper says, but her final message is upbeat ; ‘Lord save little children. The wind blows and the rain’s cold, yet they abide… they abide and they endure.’ Night of the Hunter has abided and endured over the decades; it’s one of American cinema’s most daring, poetic and downright artistic masterpieces, currently free to steam on Freevee.