The Night of the Hunter Review


The Night of the Hunter is a frightening film with a main character that is as close to pure evil as we’ve seen in film history. Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Harry Powell is absolutely incredible—it could give Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector a run for his money in the villain department. Even beyond Mitchum, however, the film is a triumph. It’s hard to believe director Charles Laughton stepped behind the camera for the first time with this effort. He creates a palpable sense of dread that completely overtakes you at times, the kind that most filmmakers would kill to achieve once in their careers.

We first meet “preacher” Harry Powell (Mitchum) leaving the scene of his latest crime—the murder of a Southern widow. It seems Powell has made a habit of this; He’s killed a number of women after marrying them and stealing their money. Soon, however, he gets picked up and goes to jail for 30 days. While there, he learns that his cellmate (who is to be hung) has stashed $10,000 somewhere, and only the man’s young children know where it is.

Once released, Powell tracks down the Harper family and charms his cellmate’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). The entire town, including Willa and her daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), is taken with him immediately. Only Willa’s son, John (Billy Chapin), is suspicious of his motives. As he casts his spell over Willa (and takes her to be his wife), he intensely works to find the money. But John isn’t having any of it, and after Powell shows his true colors, he grabs his sister and runs away with the money—Powell hot on his heels.

The film looks absolutely gorgeous. Laughton uses light and shadow to magnificent effect, and his sense of time and place is impeccable. Only in the deep South of the 1950s would people fall under the spell of such a creepy guy. And the way Laughton speaks to the spell of religion (specifically, the way the best of us and the worst of us can be brought together by it) is intelligent and honest.

What’s even more impressive, however, is the tension that mounts over the course of the film. We’re kept on the edge of our seats by Laughton as Powell proves himself resourceful and dogged enough to track down the children everywhere they go. Laughton uses a hymn as Powell’s calling card, and the contrast between him and the softness of his words is frightening.

I’ve already mentioned the marvelous work by Robert Mitchum, but the rest of the cast is excellent, as well. Shelley Winters sells her transformation—from weary widow to religious fanatic—quite well. Silent film star Lillian Gish does great work as a kindly woman who serves as a surrogate mother for lost children, including John and Pearl. The child actors predictably struggle, unfortunately. Pearl is the kind of whiny movie child that drives you crazy, and poor Sally Jane Bruce just isn’t up to the task of making her tolerable. Billy Chapin, who plays John, isn’t bad. But some of the material he’s forced to work with near the end of the film is muddled, and he doesn’t quite make certain actions seem believable.

Though it was pretty much ignored during its time, The Night of the Hunter’s stature has grown exponentially. It’s now thought of quite highly by most film buffs, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got an absolutely sensational lead performance, and the direction by acting legend Charles Laughton is tremendous. You really can’t go wrong watching this film. It’s not 100% perfect, but it’s certainly something you won’t easily forget.

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