One hit wonder: 'Night of the Hunter'

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
July 4, 2012 at 2:04 a.m.

"Night of the Hunter" is probably the greatest movie you've never seen.

And that's not your fault. The film was famed British actor Charles Laughton's only endeavor behind the camera as director, and it was a commercial and critical failure, so it got overlooked when critics were making their lists of the best films ever.

But it's a great movie, and watching it always makes me wish Laughton had not lost any inclination to direct films in the making of it.

The movie, with a script by James Agee - another great that you should check out if you haven't heard of him - tells the story of a religious fanatic who learns from his condemned cell mate that the money he is being hanged for stealing is hidden inside the condemned man's house, and only his children know where.

Rev. Harry Powell gets out of prison and heads straight to the town where his cell mate's widow and children live. The mother, played by Shelly Winters, is soon seduced into matrimony, and then out of the picture (dead at the bottom of the river).

The children take off down the river with Harry in pursuit on the riverbank.

Laughton drew a lot of inspiration from the German films of the 1930s, so the whole film has an unreal, fairy tale quality about it, a fairy tale for grownups.

Robert Mitchum, in the role of the preacher, is chilling, blood curdling, the stuff of nightmares, with glittering eyes and a voice that oozes evil. The film is worth watching just to take in his performance.

As the preacher pursues the children, it's hard to believe he won't get them and get the money out of them one way or another.

It's not giving anything away to say that this doesn't happen when the children tumble into a safe haven at an old woman's house.

The woman, played by the formidable actress Lillian Gish, doesn't seem like she could be a match for such evil as the preacher at her doorstep, but she is, and it's a marvelous thing to watch.

Good and evil, personified. It's a great story and a fantastic film, well worth the cost of a ticket. But don't take my word for it, of course. Go see it yourself.



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