Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton
Much has been written about Night of the Hunter. It has been marveled at for its challenging screenplay, the unsettling performance of Robert Mitchum, the haunting score, the brilliant use of light. It has been lauded for its artistry, its originality, and championed over the lack of enthusiasm shown for it upon release, a fate similar to another landmark film Citizen Kane.
Love it, hate it, you'll never see a film quite like it.
Based (to a certain extent) on a true story, Night of the Hunter is about Harry Powell, a psychotic reverend (Robert Mitchum) who believes it is God's will that he kill widows for the sinful ways they tempt men. He lands in jail for stealing an automobile (err...from a woman he killed) and is put in the same cell as Ben Harper (Peter Graves) a condemned man who robbed a bank out of desperation and hatred for those who were living high off the poor. Before his arrest Ben hid the money where no one would look, leaving only his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) with his secret and the promise that they will never tell. Harry Powell believes that this money should be used to build a great church of God, and marries Ben's widow (Shelley Winters) to better search for the money. Increasingly crazed and desperate, he kills his new bride and ruthlessly goes after the children who escape in John's boat down the river. They are picked up by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) a truly religious woman who saves them from Harry Powell and gives them a place to call home after such trauma.
The ending is often criticized for seeming rushed and entirely out of place, but I find it of historical interest if nothing else because my suspicion is that certain points were changed due to the social strictures of the time. There are two biographies about the making of the film by Preston Neal Jones and Jeffrey Couchman respectively, and in future I would like to look more into this.
What I found most striking about the film was the wavering line it draws between reality and fantasy, a nightmarish world where no child, no innocence is safe, without straying from real issues like the cultish qualities of religion and how the depression affected average Americans when Fred and Ginger couldn't tap dance their way around it any longer.
Religion plays a huge part in the film, from allusions to biblical stories, scripture, and song, but where it is different from many, why it was probably criticized at the time (aside from its odd style) and why I esteem it so highly, is the fact that there is a distinction drawn between the good and the evil of religion, the positive in the form of the legendary and wonderful Lillian Gish as opposed to the pompous, manic religious fanaticism of Harry Powell. There isn't exactly a middle ground, but I forgive that as it is a film of extremes. It is not all good or all bad, there are different ways that people use their faith and different ways that it should be used.
There is hardly an end to the depth that could be put into this post, but nothing I could say matches simply viewing it so that is my suggestion to one and all. I don't think that I've ever felt so unsettled by a film, and remain haunted by its images.