I did not have many nightmares as a child, but the ones that I do remember were some of the most painful memories I have. They were always ones of situations that I had no control over, as I watched my life zip right passed me, and being forced to make life or death decisions. Like being trapped in a car teetering on the edge of a collapsing bridge, or realizing that your airplane’s engine is on fire. Nightmares stick with you long after you’ve dreamed them, sometimes more than your pleasant dreams.
Now imagine an entire film that feels like a nightmare.
A film that makes you feel vulnerable, helpless, out of your element and absolutely petrified. The film would not play with your emotions, but feast on your deepest and darkest fears. You’d think a film like that would be different for everyone, but Charles Laughton’s “The Night Of The Hunter” finds a way to make the audience feel as though it were a child being preyed on by a beast that will stop at nothing to sink his teeth in your throat. This is accomplished through many ways, but in particular it is the casting and some of the best black-and-white cinematography.
During the great depression in West Virginia, local farmer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) promises to never put his children on the street without food in their belly, and ends up robbing a bank for nearly $10,000. As he makes it home to his family, he quickly finds a place to hide the money and makes his children, John and Pearl, swear the two will never show the hiding place of the cash, and that John will always protect Pearl. Ben is then taken by the cops and sentenced to death, after killing two men to get the money.
But while sleeping in his jail cell, Ben lets it slip that the money is still out there, and his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) takes advantage of this upon his release and makes it his mission in life to hunt down the money at whatever the cost, even if that means having to deal with Ben’s wife, Willa (Shelley Winters).
“The Night Of The Hunter” contains elements that you’ll be seeing a lot of when we reach my top ten – A scary other-worldly villain, and breath-taking cinematography.
Let’s start with what most people remember about “The Night Of The Hunter,” Robert Mitchum and his performance as Harry Powell. To me, this is Mitchum’s best performance, in a long career of superb roles. Mitchum was at his best when terrifying our cast of characters, and stopping at nothing to get what belongs to him, in his warped mind anyways. In this film, he stalks, berates and creeps on a desperate and poor family, to the point that the mother succumbs to his charm and silver tongue and marries the man, just so that he can get closer to the money.
The way that he pronounces “children” always sends shivers down my spine, as he takes extra care to emphasize the “chill” part. It also doesn’t help that he keeps calling these children “little lambs.”
The most defining physical trait of his character are the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles, long before it was considered popular and cool by other people. In this case, Powell uses these words to tell the story of good and evil, just to get closer to the people he wishes to use. He uses his words strategically and maniacally, with his kind words being able to swoon anyone into loving his pleasant and helpful demeanor, while his hateful words are like a knife stabbing at you long after you’ve left this world.
He sees himself as a wolf, here to help those little lambs from themselves.
But the absolute scariest part of this character, and what makes him one of the most terrifying villains in all of cinema, is that he is a man of God, a preacher. He quotes verses from the bible, profuses his love for Jesus, and tells the tale of good and evil with his hands, just so that he can kill people and steal their money. He uses God to do horrible crimes of passion and self-interest.
When asked what religion he preaches, Powell responds with the religion that he and “The Lord” worked out betwixt them. In fact, you can hear his arrival to any scene with a rendition of “Leaning On The Ever Lasting Arm,” but removing any mention of Jesus, making him all the more menacing.
Reverend Harry Powell is the perfect antagonist to these small children. He has everyone in town on his side, due to his ability to win over any religious folk, but shows no remorse or kindness, and will stop at nothing to get that money. Even when the children on the run and sleeping in a barn, Powell catches up to them in the middle of the night, where John comments on how he must never sleep or eat.
He is the monster in your nightmare that will never stop or get tired, and the only thing he thinks about is chasing you down.
To compliment the absolute terror of Harry Powell, “The Night Of The Hunter” also offers cinematography that is better than most films today, adding to the nightmarish quality to the film.
Aside from the creepy darkened houses with a virtually blank black wilderness behind them, as if they exist in a void, the gothic angles and proportions of the houses are eerie and wildly jagged, like something out of a German expressionist piece. For example, in a key scene with Mitchum and Shelley Winters, the angles of the room make a tiny house, with the vertical ends at strange angles, yet still confined and restricted. Yet Winters sleeps on a bed that is out of house and exists in a black void and almost out of reality.
During the outdoor scenes, which always take place at night, there are many source of light coming from unnatural places, as though there are multiple moons in the sky. To add to this creepy factor, there is an emphasis on small soft animals while the children are around, like rabbits, mice and frogs, and deadly predators like owls when Powell is lurking.
This gives “The Night Of The Hunter” its nightmare effect. Everything is oddly shaped and unrealistic, as if this world should not belong. Yet here is this man who uses the word of God to kill innocent people, and has the words “love” and “hate” on his hands. These children are trapped in a world where they are hunted down for something they didn’t do, in a world that even Dr. Seuss never thought of.
If that isn’t a nightmare, I don’t know what is.
The director of “The Night Of The Hunter” was Charles Laughton, who was known for is roles in “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” and “Mutiny On The Bounty.” This is also the only film Laughton would direct, and it is a gem of black-and-white filmmaking. It uses negative space and emptiness to its advantage, while having an unrelenting atmosphere where you are unsure if even God is on your side. Add an unsettling performance from Robert Mitchum, and you have a film that makes you feel trapped in unforgiving nightmare.