The murky, decrepit Deep South setting has worked as a wonderful backdrop to a series of compelling thrillers in the past couple of years, with the likes of Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud all playing on the sensibilities of the environment to great effect. However it is one of the originators of the sub-genre that now makes its way back into cinemas across Britain; Charles Laughton’s timeless cult classic, The Night of the Hunter.
Originally released in 1955, Robert Mitchum turns in a chilling performance as Harry Powell, a crook who lands himself a short-term prison sentence for auto theft. In his cell he meets a man who claims to have robbed a bank, leaving behind 10 thousand dollars before being condemned to the death penalty. Upon Powell’s release, he heads straight for the man’s widow (Shelley Winters), however it is her two young children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) who know the whereabouts of the hidden fortune. A dangerous game of cat and mouse transpires, as the shady criminal will go to any lengths necessary to get the truth out of the two stubborn kids, who remain adamant in protecting their family values and father’s memory by refusing to play ball with the distinctly treacherous man.
There is a tense, unpredictable atmosphere to this title, born out of the fact that two young children are the bearer of the secret this entire film hinges upon, as you struggle to ever second guess their next step. That’s what makes this film so special, as we’re dealing with an intelligent, cold-hearted killer who spends his life manipulating widowed women – and yet’s he’s struggling to overcome a seemingly infallible opponent – a nine-year-old boy, playing out almost like a sinister Home Alone. The naivety and blissful ignorance of the kids is explored wonderfully too, while they are naturally the underdog in this situation – a notion enhanced in the symbolic comparisons to hunters and their prey. Some of the children’s performances are a little wooden to say the least, but in a strange way it adds to the film’s charm.
The Night of the Hunter may be dressed up as a film noir of sorts, but at its core it’s an archetypal horror movie of sorts, and the way shadows and silhouettes are implemented, increases the terrifying aspects of this production. The music is effective too, with an almost calming, entrancing score to counteract the barbaric brutality on show, while the children’s singing enhances the eerie ambiance and ominous nature of the piece. Mitchum sings himself, as an almost warning sign of his omniscient presence, with a melodic style that doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. There is something so incredibly sinister about him, yet he remains so beguiling and charismatic, moving between the two sentiments seamlessly. You fully believe he’s a religious, psychopathic murderer, while at the same time you can completely adhere to the way in which he seductively charms his way into the lives of bereaving widows, convincing locals of his good natured intentions. His patronising tone with the two young children is stirring and uncomfortable, too.
The Night of the Hunter may be close to 60 years old, but the themes remain as relevant as they ever have, with greed, faith and manipulation the key elements to this production. At the heart of this tale is 10 thousand dollars, and we examine the lengths people will go to obtain it – a completely timeless narrative. However this film is most renowned for the tattoos that Harry Powell bears on his knuckles, with “Love” and “Hate” scribbled across both hands. It’s just a shame we haven’t got enough fingers to honour the film with a tattoo that reads “masterpiece”.
The Night of the Hunter is rereleased on January 17.