The Night of the Hunter

Premiered July 26, 1955: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish.  Directed by Charles Laughton (The Man on the Eiffel Tower – uncredited).  During the Great Depression, a father (Peter Graves) desperate to provide for his family, steals thenightofthehunter$10,000 and kills two people in the process.  With the police closing in on him, he hides the money in his young daughter’s (Sally Jane Bruce) rag doll and makes her and her older brother (Billy Chapin) swear to never tell anyone about the money.  After Graves is arrested and sentenced to death, he shares a cell with Robert Mitchum, who is serving a short sentence for car theft.  But what the authorities don’t know is that Mitchum is a woman-hating serial killer, who drifts from town to town posing as a righteous preacher, bilking unsuspecting widows out of their money and eventually slitting their throats.  Mitchum overhears Graves talking in his sleep about the stolen money, but Graves never reveals where it’s hidden.  After Graves is executed and Mitchum released, he becomes obsessed with finding the money and insinuates himself into Graves’ family, eventually marrying his widow (Shelley Winters).  Everyone in town thinks he’s a saint and only Chapin sees him for what he truly is.  As Mitchum becomes increasingly abusive in his pursuit of the money, Chapin and Bruce escape by floating down a river in a skiff, while Mitchum relentlessly pursues them on land.  Much has been said about this film, and opinions tend to be deeply divided between those who hold it up as an artistic masterpiece and those who see it as a misguided hodgepodge of bad writing, inelegant directing, and sloppy storytelling.  Viewed from a purely analytical standpoint, this film certainly has its share of flaws, many of which are difficult to overlook.  However, The Night of the Hunter is capable of delivering a uniquely rewarding experience if the viewer is willing to accept the film for what it is and let the story lead the way.  One of the most striking attributes of this film is its highly stylized look, which fluctuates between the real and the surreal.  Indeed, the film works best when it presents itself as a poetically surrealistic fable. The dreamlike sequence of the children floating down the river, the silhouette of Mitchum riding a horse on a distant horizon, and the expressionist rendering of Mitchum and Winters’ bedroom are among the film’s many beautiful and hauntingly unforgettable images.  When in a surrealistic mode, this film takes on the feel of a children’s story, where aspects of reality are exaggerated, while others are simply ignored, and characters’ actions and motivations don’t necessarily adhere to the expectations of the real world.  Unfortunately, the film slips in and out of this surrealistic approach, and problems arise when depicting a realistic world while characters continue to behave as if they’re in an altered reality.  Perhaps if Laughton had consistently maintained a surrealistic style, many of the criticisms leveled against this film might be easier to dismiss.  It’s a missed opportunity, because this film creates a mesmerizing tapestry when fully embracing its surrealistic nature, but as it is, it’s too tempting to ask bubble-bursting questions like: why didn’t the children simply exit their boat on the other side of the river to get away from Mitchum?  Why didn’t the children spend some of the $10,000 they were carrying to hop a train or riverboat to completely elude Mitchum?  Why didn’t Shelley Winters take action to protect her children when she overheard Mitchum threatening them?  Why didn’t Lillian Gish call the authorities immediately after Mitchum threatened to return at night?  Why does Gish sing a duet with Mitchum as he waits outside her house, intent on killing her?  These and many more, are the sort of vexatious, yet perfectly legitimate questions that come to mind as you watch the film.  So to enjoy the good things this movie has to offer, mute your analytical left brain and let yourself be swept away by the atmospheric storytelling, creative visual style, poetic expressionism, and Mitchum’s thoroughly memorable and malevolent villain.  We wouldn’t dare question how and why Astaire & Rogers suddenly break into song and dance in the middle of a scene, and a similar acceptance of modified reality is required to fully appreciate this film.  That said, there’s no getting around the film’s disappointing ending, which completely fails to deliver the satisfaction we deserve after the hour-plus buildup that preceded it.  Watching Mitchum quickly whisked away in a police car to avoid a lynch mob cheats us out of the much needed resolution of seeing him brought to justice in a meaningful way.  Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself if The Night of the Hunter is worthy of the accolades it receives or if it should simply be dismissed as bad film making.  We recognize the film’s many faults, and yet, still find its imaginative style and Mitchum’s unrelentingly menacing performance to be extremely compelling and well worth watching.  We give The Night of the Hunter 4 out of 5 fedoras.

4 Fedoras

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