The Night of the Hunter/1955/United Artists/93 min.
By Michael Wilmington
Some movies take a while to reach their audiences. Take, for example, Charles Laughton’s great Faulknerian film noir “The Night of the Hunter,” based on Davis Grubb’s Southern Gothic novel.
Beautifully scripted by James Agee, spellbindingly directed by Charles Laughton, evocatively shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and memorably acted by Robert Mitchum (in his best performance), it’s a haunting tale of murder, terror and wild, lyrical flight.
Also unforgettable: the performances by Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Darden, Don Beddoe, Peter Graves, and two little-known child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce.
In this mesmerizing movie, we see two orphaned West Virginia kids, John and Pearl Harper, desperately fleeing the honey-tongued but murderous preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum), a black-clad, brim-hatted charlatan who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles as props to his sermons. Harry is the Hunter. The children are his prey because they can lead him to the money their father (Graves) stole and managed to hide before he was arrested and executed.
Harry cajoles them, bullies them, then kills their poor, sad, seducible mom Willa (Winters). The heroine of the film is the children’s savior Miss Cooper (Gish). Then close to 60, Gish is eternally enduring, a rustic angel with a hymn on her lips and a rifle in her lap.
John and Pearl escape down the river in an open boat. And for them, the world of the rural South in the Depression becomes a magical twilight of Halloween horrors, a nocturnal landscape of rushing water, moonlit skies, ghostly trees, croaking frogs, watchful owls, pensive rabbits and evil spiders spinning their webs.
As they flee, Preacher Harry follows them on horseback, far-off but omnipresent, a specter etched in silhouette against the evening sky, singing, in Mitchum’s rich, lazy baritone: “Leaning, leaning…Safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning…Leaning on the everlasting arms.” (You’ll recognize the soothing yet eerie tune; it’s the one threaded through the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit” and sung under the credits.)
Are any classic noir images or sounds more scarily poetic than that flight, that drifting boat, those hands tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE,“ that black-clad maniac preacher, that spider, that river, that song? More