Classic Flix Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Greetings all and sundry! On the advice of and other communications from Ruth, I am going to focus my abilities on a favorite actor of mine. With distinct attention to the actor’s innate ability to scare the Beejeebus out of those in the audience, without saying much of anything threatening. To that end, please allow me to introduce you to Robert Mitchum. Rocking the lead in first and only time director Charles Laughton’s magnificent, impressionistic and visually unique Masterpiece.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Our film begins on the banks of the Ohio River. On the lee side of the Appalachians in West Virginia in the midst of the Great Depression. Along winding country roads to an old, black, top down convertible with Robert Mitchum behind the wheel. In a white shirt, starched collar and black string tie. Matching suit and big black hat. As Harry Powell. Con man, Gigolo and lady’s man. Borderline Socio and Psychopath and self appointed Reverend. With ‘LOVE’ above the knuckles of his right hand. And ‘HATE’ on his left. Who sometimes talks to Gods. And whose favorite toy is a switchblade knife. Which he uses to carry out his plan and God’s work. Reverend Powell rolls into town and finds himself at a Bijou watching a bump and grind artist ply her rather weak trade. When he’s boxed in by the local police and brought before a judge for a crime whose punishment is thirty days in jail.

Cut to more of the placid Ohio. Fertile farmland and small, well kept, maintained and tilled family farms. In the midst of one farm, there is a young brother and sister. John and Pearl Harper playing as the family car rolls up with their father, Ben. Pistol in hand. With lots to say and do with no time for either. It seems that the father, Peter Graves, long before Mission: Impossible has killed two men while helping to rob a bank of $10,000. He helps his kids hide the swag and swear never to reveal its location just as sirens draw near and the cops show up to take Pa away.

Pa draws the same judge who has sentenced Reverend Powell. And as fate would have it, Pa Harper draws the Reverend for a cell mate. Until Pa’s date with the Hangman. Time is short and Mitchum does his best to ingratiate himself, but Pa keeps his mouth shut about the money from the bank heist. Though he does talk about the farm, his wife, Willa. Shelly Winters, Test flying what would evolve into the tried and true prototype for her future characters in Lolita, Alfie and Harper. There is a strength in Willa. That nearly conquers her vulnerability. With two growing kids and a town of nosy, gossipy, holier than thou neighbors.

The Reverend is released before Pa Harper is hanged and takes his time on just the right approach to the recently widowed Harper. Who works as a waitress in the town’s Soda Shop and does her best to ignore the possibly well intentioned good, though snide advice of her co-workers. With John and Pearl in attendance, the Rev makes his first subtle move. With the classic Good vs. Evil tale of ‘Love and Hate’. So masterful is the Reverend’s telling, that Willa starts to show the first cracks in her armor. Which is duly noted as Willa sees something better. While John sees pure, smooth talking, evil.

Nature, greed and more than a subtle touch of peer pressure takes it course as Willa, the Reverend and the kids are seen more and more often. Culminating at a town picnic where Harry proposes to Willa off in the distance. John sees a bad moon rising, but is up against some heavy opposition. The wedding is consummated. Time, if not romance passes and the Rev goes into full press mode on John and Pearl. Willa overhears one evening and quickly has her throat slit and is disposed of in one of the creepiest modes in cinematic history.

Eyebrows start to raise in town as the Reverend’s tale that Willa lit out without a forwarding address doesn’t fly well. While John and Pearl start looking for anyway at all to split. That occurs after a questioning of Pearl heads south. John and Pearl run. Find a flat bottom boat and shove off as the Reverend falters behind. Leaving the kids with the Reverend’s loud, animal like snarl of defeat loud in their ears.Undaunted, the Reverend heads off. Kills a farmer and steals his horse and follows the river. Patient and finding his calm center. The Reverend follows leads that bring him to the home of Rachel Cooper. Superbly, near serenely played by Lilian Gish. Who takes in stray kids and gives them a home and chores to do.

Life is good. Until the Rev shows up just outside Mrs. Cooper’s white picket fence for a few bars of ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arm’. Chorused by Mrs. Cooper as she cradles a shotgun while rocking on the front porch. The evening hymnal is interrupted by one of the girls, Ruby. As Mrs. Cooper blows out a candle and the Reverend disappears. Mrs. Cooper tells Ruby to round up the kids!

I won’t take the story farther. Lest I get into serious Spoiler territory…

What Makes This Film Good?

First and only time director Charles Laughton deftly borrowing and sometimes outright stealing the shadowy exposition of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. To raise hairs on the back of necks in what would be otherwise innocuous scenes. That these scenes for the most part feature Mr. Mitchum’s Reverend shot from low angles to highlight his height and breadth is just creepy icing on the cake. Laughton seems to have found the Alchemy of melding foreboding mood with palpable atmosphere and makes the most of it in frame after frame. In a film that many should look upon as a First Kiss. The yard stick that all others afterwards are measured. And often found wanting.

Symbolism seems to be running quietly amok throughout the film. Especially in the long, sedate scene when John poles the flat bottom boat through what looks like Palmetto thick bayou. Thick with tortoises, frogs and spider webs. Shadows and silhouettes abound. In halls, stairways, ladder ways and the horizon. More so once the sun goes down and lighting is supplied by a waning crescent moon on the river. And gaslight and candles within the towns.

All in a basic, though superbly executed film about good and evil. The children, John and Pearl score very high on the Cherub Meter. Though John is more iron willed, while Pearl is wide eyed and naive. Stacked against neighbors and town folk who are not who or what they appear to be. While also being far too judgmental and prone to gossip. Cautiously watched by the Reverend Powell. Who is delightfully near hypnotic to watch as evil incarnate. Beneath his smile, schtick and deep, calming Basso Profundo voice.

What Makes This Film Great?

All of the above. And Robert Mitchum reveling in and making the most of his physical presence. In an iconic role that would define him until Cape Fear, seven years later. Throwing either long shadows or tall silhouettes as he ambles through spartan, roughly hewn, sturdy, yet seemingly small sets designed by Alfred Spencer and Hilyard Brown. Sharing time and space with stolid talent like Lilian Gish. And then up and comers, Peter Graves and Shelly Winters.

Cinematography by Stanley Cortez is remarkable throughout. With many memorable moments heightened by music by Walter Schuman. Who instinctively knows where and when its needed. And not.

All helping to create an unique experience that is an odd, eerie blend of Norman Rockwell, American Gothic and a touch of A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Little wonder that The Night of the Hunter was nominated to the National Film Registry in 1955 and was accepted in 1992.


Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews


Thoughts on this film? Do share ‘em in the comments.

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29 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. Saw this a while ago and it felt like a very unique movie with sometimes surreal imagery, for example the scene with the boat. Great review Jack!

    • Welcome, Nostra!

      Thanks for taking the opportunity to drop by and start the conversation.

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is more of an experience than a film. Loaded with
      superb, sometimes creepy imagery that keeps the audience on edge throughout.

      The scene on the water with the suddenly appearing and disappearing spider web is one of the most memorable in film. Beautiful and ominous at the same time. I knew I had to include the shot when I found it in the film’s collected photos.

  2. Hey Jack

    I do not even need to read your post to tell you I LOVE LOVE LOVE this film. It is one of my all time favorites.

    So visually striking.

    It is a shame that it did not do better in the box office thus depriving us of the mastery that was Charles Laughton.

    Thanks for keeping it spoiler free. Folks need to see this film!

    • Hi, iluv:

      Charles Laughton took his shot and scored on countless levels with ‘The Night of the Hunter’. One of those films I need to find in my library and see at least twice a year, To remind myself of what truly ‘Great’ really means!

      A superb collage of memorable images interspersed amongst the telling of a story to the absolute best of a director’s capabilities.

      I deliberately tried to keep my review as vague as possible. So I wouldn’t tip my hand about a project that is solidly ensconced in the ‘Required Viewing’ category!

    • Hi, Michael!

      Thanks for the compliment and comments.

      This review took quite a bit of time, Wanting to say just enough without saying too much and ruining the experience.

      Criterion has a well deserved reputation for producing a superior product.
      Bells, whistles and all. I’m glad you’re pleased.

      Half the fun in critiquing films is delving into the past histories of the directors and others involved. Then discovering where those threads and ideas branch off to later.

      A topic I’ll kind of tickle in a guest review for FRC of ‘The Bedford Incident’ from 1965. Directed by Jack. B. Harris. Who did a lot of the camera work for Kubrick on ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

  3. Been meaning to catch this for quite awhile. First time I’ve heard it compared with Nightmare on Elm Street lol! Sounds gripping and possibly way ahead of it’s time!

    • Welcome, Pete!

      Great catch and comments.

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is very much like ‘The Nightmare on Elm Street’ when viewed from young John and Pearl’s point of view.

      Especially when John gasps, ‘When does he sleep?!!!”. After waking and seeing the ominous silhouette of the Reverend mounted upon a stolen horse just beyond the barn where he and Pearl are hiding.

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is way ahead of its time. Even by today’s standards.
      Abundant in deep, razor sharp shadows and creepy imagery that increases the tension in a supremely taut piece of cinema.

      Hope to see you drop by and opine more often!

  4. Jack,

    Great, great film. My highest recommendation. Especially on the recent Criterion Blu-Ray release of the film.

    Fun Fact: Spike Lee modernized the telling of the Love/Hate story in Do The Right Thing with Radio Raheem and his four knuckle, finger rings. He’s always said it’s one of his favorite films.

    Laughton was married to actress Elsa Lanchester most of his life even though he was quietly a homosexual. You might remember Elsa as Jessica Marbles, (a send up of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) from Neil Simon’s movie Murder By Death.

    I studied the amazing composition of shots and cinematography of the film while I was in film school briefly.

    • Hi, Dave:

      Great comments, as always!

      I would imagine that ‘The Night of the Hunter’ could easily evolve into a semester long class during film school!

      It’s basically a film student’s Wet Dream come true. Loaded with symbolism and exposition, drama and shadows. Good Vs. Evil. Wrapped around the microcosm of spartan life in the 1920s Depression.

      Don’t even want to think about what it would look like in Color!

      I remember Radio Raheem’s rap at the beginning of ‘Do The Right Thing’. One of the best scenes of the film that’s loaded with outstanding talent.

  5. Yeah Citizen Kane (Toland) and Night of the Hunter (Cortez… who also coincidentally shot Welles The Magnificent Ambersons) are two wonders of B&W cinematography. They both looked like nothing else that came out in their day. Both absolutely stunning.

    You know I can’t help but wonder if this film had an influence on Terence Malick with its abundant use of nature and animals in the shots.

    I’d put the The Preacher from Night Of The Hunter and Max Cady from Cape Fear in my top 10 bad guys of all time. Between his rugged looks, baritone voice, devilish charm and confident swagger Mitchum could take on the persona of absolute evil like I’ve rarely ever seen on film. He created an instant tension when he came on screen not unlike Amon Goeth, Don Logan or Hannibal Lecter.

    • Hi again, Dave:

      Good points!

      Some cinematographers see Black &White. Others see Black & Shades of Gray. Robert Krasker superb work in Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ is another benchmark for shadows, atmosphere and ominous mood.

      You’re in for a treat. I’ll be doing a guest review of ‘Cape Fear’ right here around the 5th of April. As part of a Scary Mitchum Montage. The other film will be ‘Out of the Past’. Though that’s more intimidating than scary.

      Still think De Niro’s Max Cady is close, but weak opposite Mitchum’s. Few other actors could turn on a dime and radiate evil like Mitchum. This from a kid who grew up marveling over the talents of the late, great Rondo Hatton.
      Who’d been born with a disability and turned it into a memorable career of playing cinematic heavies.

      • Good choice with Out Of The Past.

        Had to look up Rondo Hatton. WOW! What a face. Sad to see that he went uncredited for a lot of his roles. I found a great article on him. http://wearemoviegeeks.com/2011/06/rondo-hatton-hollywoods-real-quasimodo/ . It talks about other actors who’ve had his disease like Andre the Giant, Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Carel Struycken (Lurch from the Addams Family), Paul Benedict (The Jefferson’s), Richark Kiel and Abe Lincoln. Great stuff Jack. Thanks for turning me on to him.

        You know I have The Third Man in my queue. I think I’ll watch it tonight after the Penguins game. It’s one of those films I never got around to seeing and I’ve seen a lot! I think my most egregious lapse in movies I still haven’t seen yet is Gone With The Wind. But then again “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

        • Hey, don’t use that Rhett Butler line if you haven’t seen the film, Dave :D GWTW is one of my faves, and I think you’re missing out :)

  6. I watched this on criterion blu-ray last year. It was really really exceptional. I’ll be sure to take more time and read through this whole post.

    • Welcome, impsndcnma:

      Thanks so much for dropping by and for your kind words.

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ has been wriggling around and tickling for attention since seeing it for the umpteenth time a few weeks ago. I hope my review does it justice.

      Hope to see you around to comment more often.

  7. Great review as usual Jack, unfortunately I haven’t seen this one yet. I’m gonna have to rent the Criterion BD soon.

    • Hi, Ted:

      Thanks so much!

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is one of the original works that should not
      be viewed on a dark and stormy night.

      Better to not have distractions when experiencing Laughton and Cortez’s work wash over you.

  8. Thanks for the wonderful review once again Jack! This has been on my to-watch-list for a while but will have to see it much sooner now since you rate it so highly. Seems like a role tailor made for Mr. Mitchum, he seems like an um, interesting person in real life based on what I’ve read.

    • Hi, Ruth!

      The pleasure has been all mine.

      Mr. Mitchum was that rare breed. Able to do naturally what others spend decades in class trying to master. And in ‘The Night of the Hunter’, Mitchum runs the gamut, but never goes over the top.or chews scenery.

      I’ll work on ‘Out of the Past’ over the weekend and have ‘Cape Fear’ ready for you before the end of the month.

      May also work on a review of one of Mitchum’s great, later roles in ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ sometime after that.

  9. very cool review of one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Right up there with the original Cape Fear IMO.

    • Welcome, sanclementejedi!

      Thanks very much for compliment, comments and adding to the conversation.

      The old masters, especially Murnau, Hitchcock and in this case, Laughton. Knew how to taunt at or plunge headlong onto fear with a silently cast over sized shadow or momentary glimpse at an object.

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ has that attribute in spades. I wonder if that’s because the masters grew up with and were more familiar with silent over sound film?… One to ponder.

      The original ‘Cape Fear’ stands tall and solidly above Scorsese’s later offering. Which I thinks tries to psychoanalyze Max Cady. Instead of just delivering him without preface or premise.

      Hope to see you drop by more often!

  10. Jack – great review! I’ve seen Robert MItchum in two films – Out of the Past and The Night of the Hunter, and I enjoyed the latter just a little more than the former.

    The Night of the Hunter is definitely old school creepy for film, and I was especially spooked when the kids were hiding away in the barn and he slowly rode along on a white horse, breaking the silence with his deep voice, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song the congregation used to sing on occasion at the church I attended as a kid.

    Good point on all the symbolism in the film too. I found it really fascinating with the “LOVE” and “HATE” on his knuckles, and how he used his “job as a reverend” only as a convenience to get people to like him, or to command attention and respect. Enjoyed reading, Jack!

    • Hi, Kristin:

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is definitely old school creepy. Laughton and his crew play with the darker emotions as a concert violinist and his Stradivarius.
      Letting Mitchum revel is his confident good looks, voice and ability to tell the old tale of ‘Love and Hate’ and make it sound fresh and if spoken for the first time.

      Well aware that with his self appointed position of Reverend. Mitchum becomes the Fox overseeing the Hen House.

      Thanks for dropping by and adding to the conversation.

    • Welcome, Dan!

      Thanks for dropping by with a great comment.

      Laughton’s work may seem and feel off putting to some. Though for those who are willing to let the director and his cast and crew work their magic. The film is a well deserved Masterpiece.

      If I’ve piqued a few interests into seeing this classic, I’ve done my job well.

  11. Hi Jack, great review of an amazing film! I saw this for the first time last year as part of my ongoing movie project and I fell in love with it instantly. This was my first time seeing Robert Mitchum in any role, and he blew me away. Incredible performance. What else would you recommend with him?

    • Welcome, Eric!

      Thanks so much for the compliment and gracious comments.

      I’m constantly amazed that Robert Mitchum has never gotten the attention he and his films deserved. The ultimate Tough Guy made for shadowy Film Noir. Who was equally comfortable with comedies opposite Shirley MacLaine (What a Way to Go!) and John Wayne (El Dorado).

      ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a good place to start following Mr. Mitchum. I’ll be doing a guest review right here of Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’ later this week. And should have another for ‘Cape Fear’ sometime next week.

      Any of the films I’ve mentioned above all all exceptional. As are:

      Heaven Knows Mr. Allison: (1957)
      Thunder Road: (1958)
      The Hunters: (1958)
      The Friends of Eddie Coyle: (1973)

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