Loosely based on the case of an extortionist murderer who lured his victims via lonely hearts ads, The Night of the Hunter follows a predatory preacher (Robert Mitchum) infiltrating a fatherless family (Shelly Winters, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) to steal $10,000. Let’s call it The Scripture Swindler.
Now ranked among the greatest films of all time, this Southern Gothic icon flopped upon its release; one can only imagine how its still-shocking child-killing subject matter would have played in 1955. That the killer is apparently a clergyman makes it all the more provocative, plunging a switchblade into wholesome visions of innocence and Christianity. The first half is as dark as any dream, the second a more lyrical counterweight that redeems religion to some degree.
The negative reaction meant Charles Laughton (a prolific actor) never directed again; a shame considering how brilliantly he combines silent expressionism and film noir, along with a Wellesian visual style, haunting underwater shots and ambient river sequences built on sound stages to look like miracles. His brazen subversion of biblical, Western and fairy tale imagery casts a weighty atmosphere, soundtracked by blending an ominous score with diegetic singing.
At its heart is Mitchum’s terrifying portrayal of the wack preacher, LOVE and HATE emblazoned on his knuckles; flitting between the two with mercurial black comedy. Winters is typically tragic as the mournful mother and went on to play a similar part in Lolita, marrying a man with unsavoury designs on her offspring. Lillian Gish would also reprise her role as shotgun-toting matriarch in The Unforgiven, while Chapin’s turn as the smart, brave boy gives the movie its unique child’s-eye view.
This stunning white-knuckle thriller has inspired everything from Do The Right Thing to Carnivàle, whose Brother Justin appears to be communing with the same god as Mitchum’s child-catcher of the cloth. To beware of false prophets is a tale as old as time; as long as we fall for them, The Night of the Hunter will have us in its grip.