The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Writer: James Agee
Based on: Davis Grubb‘s novel
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin, Gloria Castillo, Lillian Gish, James Gleason

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a religious fanatic serial killer who marries woman after woman, who he then murders for their inheritance. When he is arrested for stealing a car, he becomes the cell mate of Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who is on death row for robbing a bank. Harry tries to get Ben to reveal where he hid the money from the robbery, but only gleans that Ben’s kids John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Gloria Castillo) know. So when Ben is executed and Harry released, he goes to find and woo Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and find that money.

I don’t really get why this movie is such a classic. I mean, yes, Robert Mitchum is absolutely fantastic in it – charismatic, creepy yet attractive and completely insane. But other than that it is very poorly executed, riddled with mistakes and often veers into the ridiculous.

I think the editing really was the worst offender in this film. There are quite a few scenes where things just didn’t fit together: synchronization between the audio and the lip movements, huge steamboats with trees in the background on pretty small rivers (or maybe even a lake) without trees at the shore, a body that is dumped into said small river that is about 1m deep. (And even assuming that the river is 3m deep, the body is floating about 10cm below the surface and is easily spotted from a rowboat – for somebody who has killed so often as Powell, you just have to wonder how he never got caught before – with that kind of attention to detail.)

And that list goes on. Part of those mistakes were probably due to budgetary concerns and I’m usually rather tolerant when it comes to continuity issues, but in this film it got so annoying that I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. Especially since the movie barely had any other redeeming features anyway.

The script was about as subtle as your average groomed poodle. People talked to themselves/the camera/god all the time in weird, preachy monologues, explaining what they’re doing, what they did so far and how they see what’s happening. That’s also the ending of the film: a monologue where the line “children abide” is said about a billion times. And it is not helped by the fact that most of the supporting cast hams their way through the entire film.

Really the only reason that you should watch this film is for Robert Mitchum. Though he would have profited from a stronger director, he was a talented actor and a charismatic, good-looking guy with a very nice singing voice who hits just the right notes of craziness to make his character work.

Summarising: It is a classic and Robert Mitchum is excellent, but other than that it’s pretty forgettable.

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