Monday, July 25, 2016

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Dark Night of the Hunter
(written in 2007)

1955 saw the directorial debut (and only directorial effort) in The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton.  Laughton was better known as an actor from films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Spartacus (1960).  The film, like many classics, was ahead of its time and flopped in the box office. IMDB reports that the film made only $300,000 on its initial release while its budget was almost $800,000.  The critical reaction at the time was so negative that Laughton vowed to never direct again.

The film stars Robert Mitchum, who is notorious for playing each of his characters the same, however, in this film he manages to portray a convincing sociopath.  Also featured in the film is a young Shelly Winters.  She looked very different in her younger days, much prettier than she appeared when she was in The Poseidon Adventure in her later years.  Lillian Gish, who was already a Hollywood legend at the time of the film’s release, is strong in her role as Rachel Cooper.  Gish is one of the few stars from the silent era who successfully transitioned into the “talkies” and continued making films into the 1980s.  One of the shining stars of the film was the young Billy Chapin who portrays John Harper.  Chapin had a lot to carry with his role in the film and was quite successful in it.  Chapin only appeared in one more film before leaving Hollywood (IMDB).

The film’s opening sets us up for the themes that will later be explored.  These include the innocence of children, good versus evil, faith in God and explorations of the sexual nature of men (and women). Robert Mitchum portrays Harry Powell, a man who uses the guise of a preacher to commit crimes. He is caught, sentenced and is sent to jail.  While in prison, he shares a cell with Ben Harper and hears him talk about money obtained in a robbery in his sleep. Harper is executed for his part in a robbery, but he hid the money and entrusted his children, who are about 10 and 5 years old, with the money's location.  Upon his release from prison, Powell returns to masquerading as a preacher.  He woos and marries Harper's widow, Willa in order to obtain the robbery money, and eventually kills her.  The children, especially John, distrust and resist Powell.  After their mother's death, Powell learns the money's location from Pearl after threatening John.  The children escape with Rachel Cooper played by Gish.  He eventually finds them, but is stopped by Rachel, who figures out that he is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  The police are notified and he is arrested. He is then tried for multiple murders and then executed.

The film was based on a novel about a real person who lived the life that Powell’s character portrays. The thematic elements of the film are so universal that this film has often been referenced, copied, imitated and/or quoted by numerous films.  Do to the disturbing nature of the film, children as lead characters who are forced to stand up against a pedophilic faux-preacher; the film was not well received in its release.  As previously mentioned, this was just another case of the film being ahead of it’s time.  As time as show, this film is now considered a classic.

With the film’s beginning depicting Rachel Cooper reading a bedtime story from the bible to the children, the frame work is laid out depicting a child’s nightmare.  This is especially true as the story develops.  John Harper, who is only a boy, is forced to stand up for himself and his sister in an adult world.  He is essentially left to fend for himself after his mother is killed by Powell.  One can remember from their own childhood, the fear of being left on one’s own with no mother or father around for guidance.  The film also reminds us of those nightmares where we are being chased and cannot find anywhere to hide.  This film excels at forcing these fears to present themselves again in our minds.

The film further pursues the concept of how men are often the predators of the world.  Women and children must beware as to not become their victims.  Powell has killed children in the past and has no problem killing women.  The children in this film, along with Rachel Cooper are forced to stand up again this predator and ultimately win the fight.  This also coincides with the confusion for children as to who they should trust and believe in the world.  Even when Powell is arrested for the last time, John becomes upset and physically ill.  He turns over the Pearl’s doll with the money hidden to the police in some vain attempt to make everything stop and go away.  Even though Powell is the “evil-stepfather,” the children are once again victims as he is taken away for the murder of their mother.
As the film ends, Rachel’s final words are once again quoted from the bible.

”They abide and they endure.”  This is the moral of this nightmarish bedtime story for children, if you do what you are told, you will always end up alright.  The word “endure” does not insinuate that these terrible events won’t haunt the orphaned children for the rest of their lives, but it does suggest that obedience breeds survival.

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