The image is iconic: a country preacher leans against a baluster, the word LOVE tattooed on his right hand, the word HATE on his left; his expression a paradox of friendly menace. He proceeds to wrestle his hands together in a demonstration of man’s eternal struggle. The preacher is the great Robert Mitchum, and the movie is the screen classic, “Night of the Hunter” (1955) featured April (2022)on MGM HD.
“Night of the Hunter” is a story of greed, religious fervor, salvation, and of course, love and hate. Set during the Great Depression, the story begins when a poor farmer (Peter Graves) is arrested for stealing ten thousand dollars to feed his family. Before he is hauled away, he makes his young children John and Pearl (Ben Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) swear to keep the loot’s whereabouts hidden. Shortly thereafter, Mitchum’s psychopathic so-called preacher Harry Powell enters their lives with one thing in mind: get that money. He employs religious zeal to seduce the kids’ mother Willa, played by the underrated Shelley Winters, and sets to work threatening the kids to pry their secret loose.
“Night of the Hunter” was the acclaimed actor Charles Laughton’s only turn in the director’s chair. It should come as no surprise that that the master thespian was able to elicit terrific performances from his actors. Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is one of his all-time greatest parts and he plays him with eccentric charm and creepy danger. Shelley Winters was seldom better than she is here, understated and subtle as a woman in a thrall to her own misguided desire to be morally “clean.” Other stand-out performances include Evelyn Varden’s self-righteous neighbor, the aptly named “Icey Spoon,” and silent-screen veteran Lillian Gish as the clear-eyed angel of mercy who sees Mitchum’s character for exactly what he is.
But it is Laughton’s skill as a filmmaker that stands out and makes “Night of the Hunter” really special. At its core, the movie is an allegory about the battle signified by the words emblazoned on Mitchum’s knuckles. Laughton filmed the tale with an expressionistic artifice instead of the realism popular in the mid-fifties. Some sets are claustrophobic making the viewer feel as trapped as the children. Others feel like mere suggestions: little more than a judge’s bench and portrait of Abraham Lincoln are needed to create a courtroom; the silhouette of Mitchum slowly passing on horseback in the distance illustrates a chase. Perhaps one of the film’s most stunning images is a lingering underwater shot of a woman tied to the passenger seat of her car parked at the bottom of a river. The overall effect is that of a dreamscape or a twisted fairytale sure to stay in the viewer’s minds long after the final credits end.
It is worth noting that August is the birth month of two of the film’s stars: Robert Mitchum (8/6/1917) and Shelley Winters (8/18/1920). Celebrate these great actors with “Night of the Hunter,” featured this April (2022)on MGM HD