United Artists, 92m 25s
"My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord save little children. The wind blows, and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide. They abide and they endure."—Rachel Cooper
To be a fan of the cinema sometimes causes one, like it or not, to ponder what might have been. Often such thinking revolves around careers cut tragically short; for me that list includes screen legends such as James Dean, Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee and Heath Ledger. Then there are those filmmakers who likely had significant contributions to make had they survived longer, i.e. F.W. Murnau, Michael Reeves and Bob Fosse. Perhaps even more painful are the films thought forever lost, like the Lon Chaney vehicle LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), the unfinished Jerry Lewis project THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED and the version of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) director Orson Welles intended before studio interference chained his film's second half to the bottom of the ocean. But the loss that bothers me most is the one-and-done directorial career of Charles Laughton, whose astonishing THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER stands as one of the most revelatory filmmaking debuts in Hollywood history. Though his film's reputation only has grown in stature over the years, at the time of its release it was a commercial and critical disappointment that prevented Laughton from taking the director's chair again. One only can presume Laughton had far more to offer than a solitary filmmaking effort. What if THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the floor of his artistic sensibility, not the ceiling? What if he had started directing as a much younger man? What might he have brought to other genres? That last question is the most challenging to consider given the one Laughton-helmed production we have to evaluate. He definitely did not play it safe. His film stubbornly resists categorization as it is many things at once: German Expressionism throwback, American melodrama, horror film, fantasy film, fairy tale, Biblical story and of course film noir. Laughton bravely condenses elements from seemingly disparate narrative forms into far-reaching, dark-witted dimensions, timelessly unique and tonally coherent.
That THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is concerned with children is apparent in the early going. As the opening credits roll, ominous theme music (by Walter Schumann) transitions into the traditional song "Dream, Little One, Dream," sung by children. Next the film's crucial matriarch communicates a message of warning from Matthew 7:15: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing..." Her words of caution segue into a God-like overhead view of a group of kids playing hide and seek. In the course of play, the young ones are stunned to discover the lifeless body of an adult woman, glimpsed only from the knees down. The woman's killer is introduced next as he travels by automobile along the Ohio River in West Virginia. Predatory preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) specializes in victimizing women who have lost their spouses. As he holds a conversation with a supposedly approving God, the self-proclaimed preacher confesses he has lost count of how many widows he has destroyed as he awaits direction in regard to his next mission. In response, at least in terms of Powell's unusual belief system, the Lord Almighty has the preacher picked up for auto theft at a burlesque club. Meanwhile, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is arrested and condemned to death after killing two people during a bank robbery. Before Harper is arrested, he leaves $10,000 in stolen bank money with his two small children: John Harper (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce). Significantly, Harper trusts his children with the stolen money more than his wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). As film noir fate dictates, Powell and Harper become cellmates. Before Harper is executed, Powell hears Harper talking in his sleep, which puts the preacher on the trail of that bank heist money, now guarded by young John Harper.
Prior to his execution, Ben Harper mumbles in his slumber from the book of Isaiah, "and a little child shall lead them." With Harper's boy thrust into the role of cynical lead protagonist through no fault of his own, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER applies the harshest of film noir aspects to a young person. John finds his resolve tested by the sort of crushing pressures that often defeat adults in the noir film. In the grandest of film noir traditions, our unlikely lead protagonist is haunted by a past that would traumatize anyone. After he and his sister (even younger) witness the arrest of their father, who is roughed up by police before his sentence to death by hanging, the Harper children must absorb the cruelty of their schoolmates ("hing hang hung, see what the hangman done"). This sequence reveals the difference in maturity between John and Pearl: he is old enough to understand what is going on and his sister is not. Thus by the time the preacher descends upon the town in search of the recently widowed Willa Harper, her son John has been taught to be skeptical of people and their motivations. As the preacher Powell charms the local townsfolk without much resistance, John immediately distrusts the man in black. John's suspicions about Powell are proven accurate when John catches Powell in a huge lie about the whereabouts of the $10K. John maintains his silence in honor of his late father's wishes as his mother weds the preacher to create perhaps the most hopeless film noir union in a genre congested with families under all sorts of emotional and economic stress. In fact economic conditions greatly contribute to the sham of a union between Powell and Mrs. Harper. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a Depression-era story, with Ben Harper turning to crime for the financial betterment of his family. So the Harper family's destruction is initiated by its patriarch, who by American tradition provides support to the family structure's backbone. Instead his efforts to improve his family's fortune cause its displacement into the tattooed hands of the malevolent Powell. As if to mock the Harper sorrow, the prison hangman (Paul Bryar) is shown to be part of an idealized family, complete with a boy and girl asleep safe in their bed. Despite John's impressive display of masculine strength throughout the narrative, noir forces eventually break down our small protagonist in the film's final act, as he forfeits his father's heist money in a moment of catharsis. As Powell is arrested in a sequence that parallels the apprehension of John's condemned father, John recognizes the difference that distinguishes his father from Powell is merely one of degree.
|THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is loaded to the gills with the visual signature of film noir|
|Danger after dark|
|The idealized female portrait|
Though its story focuses on the development of children, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER offers no mature males capable of offering the sort of positive reinforcement young people require. Failed husband and father Ben Harper is shown with his children only long enough to give instruction on how to care for the money for which he killed. Uncle Birdie Steptoe (James Gleason), the riverside town drunkard, proves unwilling to notify the proper authorities after happening upon a submerged body. Later he is too intoxicated to help the Powell children at their most desperate time of need. Town merchant Walt Spoon (Don Beddoe) suspects there is something wrong with Powell, but is unable to act on his intuition given the influence of his wife Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), who completely misreads the preacher in terms of character and intentions. Then we have the false prophet, a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist of untethered greed, driven by his narrow-minded construct of feminine evil. A serial killer of simmering hate, those famously tattooed fingers suggest someone who harbors multiple identities, a recurring theme of the film noir. His killing weapon of choice has obvious Freudian implications, especially when that switchblade is first triggered at a burlesque show. Like so many of the cinema's knife-wielding killers, Powell is impotent. Perhaps the scariest things about Powell is his earnest belief that his mission is noble. Unmotivated to deviate from his long-held paradigm, obviously the Powell character brings to mind a vast number of real-life conmen and charlatans that emerged before and since the film's conception.
The intense hatred of frivolous female sexuality harbored by Powell reflects polarized female archetypes film noir followers should be quick to recognize. But when he watches a striptease in a state of palpable bitterness, seemingly ready to carve up a dancer for flaunting her sexuality, is the viewer meant to side with the preacher? The sudden appearance of a police officer strongly implies no. And surely the average viewer would struggle to side with Powell's absurdly cruel treatment of Willa Harper, shamed sanctimoniously by her new husband on their wedding night. Powell forces Willa to consider her body only in terms of its ability to bear children. He even scolds her for having amorous feelings: "That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men." Later on during a spooky tent-preacher sequence, Willa boldly announces she is to blame for the Harper family’s dislocation. As if in a trance controlled by Powell, she testifies before the affixed congregation that her material demands alone set her husband on a crime rampage. In one of film noir's greatest of ironies, she foretells her watery grave when she says, "My whole body's just a-quivering with cleanness." Willa is far from an unsympathetic character; she loses her first husband and ultimately her own life, but her combination of spinelessness and gullibility is unappealing. Her husband Ben has so little faith in her he calls upon their little gradeschoolers to manage his ill-gotten gains. Perhaps the most positive female of the townspeople who gets a closeup is Bess, the departed wife of Uncle Birdie, now gone some 25 years and present only via idealized portrait (a consistent film noir hallmark). Birdie believes she still keeps watch over him, and he still talks to her as if she can listen.
|A hopelessly unconsummated film noir marriage|
Given the deficiency of responsible male role models and the presence of females prone to the phony charms of the preacher, a strong-willed matriarchal figure is required to guide vulnerable children into adulthood. That throwback personality is Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a God-fearing woman suitably equipped to deal with the likes of Powell. A mature guiding light like Cooper is especially important for the foolish naivete of teenage girls like Ruby (Gloria Castillo), who is drawn instantly to the hypnotic evil embodied by Powell. In fact Ruby maintains feelings for him even after he is arrested for the murder of Willa Harper. Is Ruby set up for the identical fate that entraps Willa? THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is cynical in its message that positive females are either aging (Cooper) or long gone (Bess).
|Simultaneously beautiful and repulsive: |
the death of Willa Harper evinces
the coldly uncompromising noir aesthetic
a hard world for little things."
According to the onscreen information that accumulates in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, indeed it is an unfairly difficult world for small creatures to navigate. Children discover a Powell victim while playing. The Harper kids witness the arrest of their father and must move on after his execution. Area children cruelly mock the young Harpers after their father is hung by the neck. An immature rabbit is killed by a barn owl. But nothing underscores the "hard world for little things" theme quite like the preacher's interminable pursuit of those small Harper children. As John and Pearl float down a river in an attempt to outrun their chaser, the ecosystem possesses a lyrical quality, in essence a departure into the terms outlined in Genesis 1:24-25:
"And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.' And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good."
Their small boat passes a spider's web, a frog, a tortoise, rabbits, sheep, cattle, a whip-poor-will, dogs, a fox. Interestingly, Powell is on horseback as he pursues the children. Like him or not, the preacher is connected in a Biblical context. Ultimately the river delivers the endangered Harpers to the Rachel Cooper farm, a safety zone for lost little ones. "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds," she explains. Cooper also has a knack for warding off dangerous creatures like Powell; via confident shotgun fire she reduces him to a defensive animal. As he takes cover in her barn, for the first time Powell's own vulnerability is exposed. Fittingly, the film's concluding scene plays out on Christmas Day, every child's favorite holiday. The instincts of children triumph with the right encouragement from Cooper. John absolutely proves his resourcefulness and durability and looks destined to assert himself one day as an adult, to emerge as the sort of dependable, idealistic man the narrative posits to be in short supply.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is an extremely well-written film peppered with all kinds of memorable dialog, much of it delivered by Robert Mitchum, i.e., "I can feel myself gettin' awful mad," Powell warns the Harper children in the basement. "She turned me out of the bed," he lies through his teeth about the wife he murdered. Mitchum is an unbelievable force of evil as the preacher. Certainly his performance here anticipates the similarly single-minded menace he would portray in CAPE FEAR (1962), as when, arms outstretched, he chases the fleeing children up the basement steps. When the river-bound children board an available skiff and narrowly escape the singular purpose of the preacher, his scream of anguish defines a madman even more unbalanced than suggested up to that point. “Don’t he never sleep?” John laments in reflection of their tireless hunter. An exceptional moment of the film involves an unlikely duet between Cooper and Powell (the traditional hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"). Powell is unaware as the two combine voices that he is losing the battle of good versus evil he so likes to depict with his tattooed hands.
The 1953 novel THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was written by Davis Grubb, whose writing was inspired by the true crime story of serial killer Harry F. Powers (born Harm Drenth; November 17th, 1893 – March 18th, 1932). Executed by hanging, Powers was convicted of murder in the deaths of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Powers used "lonely hearts" ads to find available women he could exploit for whatever wealth they possessed. Reportedly Laughton heavily edited screenwriter James Agee's adaptation, which was far too lengthy for a feature film. Nonetheless, Laughton elected not to share screenwriting credit with Agee. In light of the subject matter, securing Production Code approval was a challenge. The film's budget was just under $600K. Principal photography commenced on August 15th, 1954 and was completed on October 7th that same year. As one might expect, various religious groups stood opposed to Laughton's filmmaking debut, including the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Protestant Motion Picture Council.
Since the days of its theatrical run, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER has jumped from commercial misfire to long-treasured cult favorite. In 1992 it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry. In 2008 the French film publication Cahiers du Cinéma chose THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER as the second-best film in cinema history, behind only the monumental CITIZEN KANE. And the reputation of Laughton's film got a recent boost from the critics queried for SIGHT AND SOUND magazine's decennial "Greatest Films of All Time" poll. In 2012 the film landed at 63, but by 2022 its position improved to 25. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER's influence on cinema and television programming that would follow it really cannot be estimated. The love/hate tattoo scheme that assured Harry Powell a starter conversation with anyone he met has been referenced in films as diverse as JARDIM DE GUERRA (1969), THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), THE ONION FIELD (1979), DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), FATAL INSTINCT (1993), MALLRATS (1995), THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (2005) and RUST AND BONE (2012). Interestingly, the early exit of the Willa Harper character anticipates Marion Crane's (Janet Leigh) premature departure in PSYCHO (1960) by five years.
I confess until recently I was unaware of the made-for-TV remake that aired in 1991. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to give it a watch. From the opening credits, as directed by David Greene, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER offers no pretense of being a work of art. One of the movie's many problems is its Depression-era source material injected into a contemporary setting. Other issues include pedestrian writing and an obviously modest budget that sometimes brings to mind a daily soap environment. But most off-putting of all is the focus on the opportunistic Harry Powell (Richard Chamberlain) as the lead protagonist rather than John Harper (Reid Binion). This alteration either dilutes or eliminates many of the Laughton original's major themes and motifs, especially with the Rachel Cooper character excluded. Probably the best illustration of the difference between the 1955 version and the repurposing for 1991 is the wedding night sequence. The remake does nothing to establish the sexual inadequacies of Powell, so his reaction to his new wife's entrance into the bedroom makes sense only if one is familiar with the source material. Another version of the Grubb novel might be on the horizon as well: on April 7th, 2020 it was reported Universal Pictures had started development on another remake, this time adapted by Matt Orton. I could not uncover any more recent news on the subject of this purported modernizing of the original story.
With a cavalcade of prestigious titles getting the 4K Ultra HD treatment, Kino Lorber has been busy lately making me feel like my Blu-ray collection is completely obsolete. Thankfully they have done an admirable job with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. The triple-layered UHD100 disc boasts a new 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative and looks spectacular framed at 1.85:1, though a significant departure from the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1 (according to Turner Classic Movies). Compared with home video releases framed at 1.66:1, the result is a loss of some content, as Gary Tooze reported: www.dvdbeaver.com. Absence of some information aside, the Kino release must be considered the preferred option to appreciate the dazzling B&W cinematography by Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THE UNDERWORLD STORY , THE THREE FACES OF EVE ), who ensures the production is rich in the atmosphere of the noir form. No doubt this is the best THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ever has looked, with vastly improved contrast and definition versus the Criterion Collection edition issued in 2014. But in terms of disc-based bonus material, collectors are advised to hang on to their Criterion discs for the considerable array of unique supplemental features.
The most significant Kino extra is a new audio commentary track by novelist and former VIDEO WATCHDOG editor Tim Lucas, whose understanding of the language of cinema is put to good use during the film's runtime. Lucas examines the differences from novel to film (some in terms of Production Code limitations), references to D.W. Griffith and Walt Disney, as well as the film's various connections to scripture. He discusses the film's notions about unconditional love in terms of the Cooper character, who loves and cares for her adopted children though she recognizes they might forget about her as they grow up and leave (there is evidence that has happened to her repeatedly already). One of his best observations is that the riverside picnic sequence features Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters striking poses from a bygone era. But I also appreciated his commentary track for bits of information less important to movie love, as when Lucas offers some particulars on the gar, a large, toothy freshwater fish that inhabits the Ohio River. Also according to Lucas, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the first movie to make use of the word "whores."
A separate Blu-ray disc contains a small amount of newly-recorded material for this Kino Lorber release. In "LOVE AND HATE: Filmmaker Ernest Dickerson on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" (8m 31s) Dickerson points out it is Mitchum's character who nudges the film into noir territory; the film's early sequences are shot in a much more naturalistic sense. As the narrative progresses the film takes on an increasingly stylized, nightmarish quality. A faster film stock allowed for a lower level of light as certain sequences required. "LITTLE LAMBS: Actress Kathy Garver on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" (9m 53s) allows Garver to recall THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER as her introduction to the film business. As the 8-year-old double for the 6-year-old Sally Jane Bruce, Garver was called into action primarily for sequences that required Pearl Harper to run. As history has it, Bruce would not act again and Garver has amassed 100 acting credits on IMDb.com at the time of this writing. With "HING, HANG, HUNG: Artist Joe Coleman on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" (15m 42s), the artist/performer Coleman reviews the history of convicted killer Harry F. Powers, "The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell," along with the differences from novel to feature film.
Also on the Blu-ray disc is a collection of trailers for comparable titles available from Kino, along with two trailers for THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1m 38s and 1m 36s).