The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s horrifying masterpiece

Can you believe it’s October already? I certainly can’t. But you know what that means. Horror Month is here! And we kick off this year’s celebrations with Robert Mitchum’s terrifying turn as the Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). But before we go any further, I must confess something: I cannot stand Shelley Winters. There I said it. Been sitting on that for 15 years. Some actors grow on me, some don’t. She never has. And yes, I’ll acknowledge that she has her moments – you don’t win two Best Supporting Actress Oscars if you don’t – but she just doesn’t do it for me and I can’t quite figure out why. So I’ll refrain from going too deep into her contribution to this film, which, again, I acknowledge is good and needed, and instead I’ll focus on the man of the hour.

Robert Mitchum plays the utterly wicked Harry Powell, a preacher who preys on women, marries them, then kills them. And when he finds out that Ben Harper (Peter Graves), the man he’s sharing a prison cell with, has hidden money somewhere in West Virginia, his wife, Willa Harper (Winters), becomes his next victim. After Ben’s execution and Powell’s release, he goes after Wilma and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)…

Based on the Davis Grubb novel of the same name, and adapted by James Agee, Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a truly frightening tale from start to finish. From Walter Schumann’s eerie, ominous music, cut off by Lillian Gish’s lovely voice in the opening narration, to her ‘duet’ with Powell in the name of good and evil, the film explores contrasts stunningly. The LOVE-HATE thing is now, of course, iconic and endlessly re-created, but its irony still stands and makes its point beautifully, even if we’ve seen it a million times. Laughton’s and cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s blunt use of horror tropes – the lighting, the shadows, good vs evil – is also effective and makes for one incredibly visually striking film, almost like something you’d see in a True Crime documentary these days (Willa at the bottom of the river, anyone?). And Harry Powell… I mean, has Mitchum ever been this… uncool? Actually, I take that back. Even as one of cinema’s most terrifying characters, he still manages to be cool (ish). Because of course he does. Not to mention that Powell’s evil ways can only come to fruition because of his enormous charm. Powell is clearly a narcissist, on top of being a psychopathic serial killer. But he’s not cool-cool, Robert Mitchum-cool that is, and that’s why his performance is so great. And if he can pop into the Horror celebrations for once, instead of next month’s Noir festivities, then that shows you how versatile he really was. And yes, some have claimed that The Night of the Hunter has noir elements here and there, and obviously it does, but out of the two, it is a lot more horrifying than anything else. And it stays right here. Happy Horror Month, everyone!

6 thoughts on “The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s horrifying masterpiece

  1. Mike Noonan

    Nice take on it Carol. I guess can be film noir or horror. You say potato, I say poTATo, lol. Definitely a clsssic. Saw it recently and holds up. My mother had problems with Shelly Winters as well. The big disappointment is that Charles Laughton never directed another film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes he should have absolutely directed more films!
      Yeah, I think it definitely falls more into the horror category than noir, but like so many of them (Cat People, The Spiral Staircase…) it can certainly be both!

      Liked by 1 person

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