The Night of the Hunter (1955)

"The Night of the Hunter" is a tale of two sides of the same coin. The movie opens to a woman giving young children a Bible lesson and she warns them "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." This is taken from the book of Matthew in the Bible, but it isn't given much to to settle in before the camera switches over to boys playing hide-and-seek and finding a dead woman's body.
Harry Powell is the villain of "The Night of the Hunter" and yet if anyone is the main character it is him. This man has a battle of good versus evil tattooed on his knuckles with the words "love" and "hate" on either hand.
 The narrative switches back and forth between him and the Harper family. Powell is the false prophet of the movie, he uses the Bible to justify his actions which are anything but holy. He is a preacher, not a very Christian one, and he thinks that God is telling him to kill women and take their money.
When Mr. Harper kills two men and steal $10,000; he hides the money before the police catch up to him and makes his children, John and Pearl, swear that they will never tell anyone where the money is.
Powell was put into prison for stealing a car and during the thirty days that he's serving out his sentence, he gets put in the same cell that Mr. Harper is in. Harper talks in his sleep and Powell catches on that there is money to be found somewhere, he tries to pry the knowledge out of Harper but the man remains silent until he is hanged for his crime.
Powell is released and tracks down the Harper family, intent on getting the money whatever the cost may be.
"The Night of the Hunter" is a good thriller. It's not the first but for being made in the 50s, it is remarkably modern.
I was surprised by how direct the conversations of the people were. Some women make comments that men only want sex and women just have to endure it for a while. There is one line in particular that is slightly funny but also incredibly vulgar for this era of film.
Powell is crazy, that much can be seen from the first moment that we see him, but Robert Mitchum does not play Powell as crazy. He's more intelligent and refined. There's a method to his madness.
One of the key features of the film that could be overlooked is its naturalistic terror. Sometimes the music blares in a Rachmaninoff fashion, but other times—there's nothing. Charlie Laughton, the director, allows for the simple idea of being near the villain be horrifying enough. Powell likes to sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Love" and every time he's on the hunt he sings the song. When you hear that song coming down the road, you know what's coming but there's no threatening music or a blare of trumpets to reinforce this, Laughton just lets it happen.
This film would have failed if it hadn't been for it's children actors. Mitchum is great as Powell but if it's just him—the film goes nowhere.
Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce play John and Pearl and the success of the movie hangs on their shoulders and—thankfully—they deliver.
There were a few things that I wasn't completely satisfied with in "The Night of the Hunter" like a cult-ish scene that reveals the spell that Powell can cast on a group of people with his charm. It was too cliche for me. There was also a long montage of river animals that didn't seem to serve any purpose.
But the rest of the movie is really, really good.
Laughton doesn't fall into the pointless thriller style of movie and Mitchum doesn't overplay Powell.
Perhaps the best feature of the movie is how psychologically fascinating it is, never once does it feel fake.

Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4

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