The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters & Lillian Gish; directed by Charles Laughton; (1955)
The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton's only directorial effort. This highly regarded film has been on my "To Do" list for many years. The highlight of the film is Robert Mitchum's performance as the maniacal preacher. Mitchum is the Reverend Harry Powell, a hellraiser in Depression Era West Virginia. With "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his right and left hands (didn't he have that in Cape Fear too?), the preacher is always ready with a parable or a knife, whichever better suits his purposes.
When Peter Graves becomes his cellmate, Powell comes up with a plan to get the money Graves stole. Graves won't be needing it since his character is sentenced to the gallows. When Powell gets out, he visits Graves' widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and quickly insinuates himself into her graces. After their marriage, Powell discovers that Willa's children, John & Pearl, know the location of the stolen money.
With Willa of little remaining use, Powell ends the marriage with a knife across her throat. John & Pearl escape with the money in a boat and lazily float down the river. They find shelter with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an old spinster with a tough exterior but kind heart. Cooper runs a home for abandoned children. When Powell comes looking for John & Pearl, Cooper defends her brood with a shotgun blast that sends Powell howling into the night. Eventually arrested by the police, Powell escapes conviction but not the lynch mob.
There is a lot going on in The Night of the Hunter. It's hinted that Willa is a loose woman. I suppose she had to do what she had to do to feed her kids after becoming the widow of a killer. The preacher doesn't like loose women and again, it is hinted that Willa & Powell never consummate their marriage. Very strange behavior for a man just out of prison. Powell is definitely repressing some powerful emotions whereas Willa meekly accepts what comes her way including a switchblade across her carotid artery. Presumably, she is self-loathing for her wanton ways and the shame of her murderer/robber husband. Sex continues to play a role in the film as Powell seduces a teenage girl (Gloria Castilo) in the care of Miss Cooper in order to get information from her. Miss Cooper appears to have never been married and by extension never had sex which makes her the perfect foil for the abstinent preacher.
It's the lynch mob at the end that kicks the film into a frenzy. I wasn't expecting that and the fear on the face of Cooper makes clear the fury she and Powell has unleashed.
The film isn't quite as powerful as it must have been in 1955 but Mitchum's performance is still plenty creepy. I couldn't help but think there were some "coded" messages in the film which I couldn't decipher. "Code" as in Hays Code. Mitchum's & Gish's performances have been praised over the years but I thought Shelley Winters delivered the strongest performance in a character who is not as resolute as Powell & Cooper.
My mind has turned to mush from work and posting on this blog for the past 13 consecutive days. I've cleared out most of my backlog of films but am having a difficult time articulating my thoughts. I need to take a few days off from blogging. This weekend will give me quite a few options - Pier Paolo Pasolini films at the Castro and Roxie or William Friedkin at the PFA. I haven't decided which films I will see but know that I won't be posting for awhile.