With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform. Stream “Night of the Hunter” here.
What’s left to say about “The Night of the Hunter,” beyond the brilliance of Charles Laughton’s direction, Robert Mitchum’s horrific and hypnotizing screen presence, and the timeless badassery of a shotgun-wielding Lillian Gish? How about this: If this masterpiece remains a blind spot for you, now’s the time to catch up, before the planned remake threatens to ruin its memory.
That may sound like a harsh assessment of a project that has yet to come to fruition, but the very notion that “The Night of the Hunter” could be remade registers as an insult to the sheer ingenuity of the original. Decades later, it still radiates with haunting beauty and inquisitiveness, transcending the pulpy genre format to offer a timeless referendum on the American dream. There’s a magical synergy to every aspect of this absorbing thriller that continues to reveal itself 65 years down the line.
Laughton was a veteran actor by the time he made his directorial debut, and it’s the sort of career-defining achievement that makes you wonder if it even would have been worth the effort had he managed to direct a few more films in the seven years of life he had left. “The Night of the Hunter” says it all.
More than that, it provides a template for the kind of masculine bravado that would come to define a whole generation of male performances, even as it functions as a prescient critique of the same thing. Robert Mitchum’s psychotic criminal preacher Harry Powell (who was based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers) buries his desperation in tough guy posturing and Bible verses galore, even using his relationship to God as a means of justifying his murderous rampage. “Your book is full of killings!” he says, somehow managing to smirk and sneer at the same time.
Laughton envisioned his scheming Bluebeard as an embodiment of the nation’s paradoxes, the way its religious foundations sit in constant paradox with the lying, cheating, amoral tendencies that society allowed to proliferate. There’s a subversive undercurrent to Mitchum’s performance — he’s fun to watch on several levels, and Laughton dangles the actor in enticing closeups as if to say, You like this, don’t you? That’s the problem.
To his mild credit, Harry struggles with his guilt. When he first arrives in sleepy 1930s-era West Virginia, seeking out the widow of a bank robber who hid his loot with his children, Harry delivers his famous monologue on love and hate, revealing the knuckle tattoos that still reverberate years later. Spike Lee saw the forest from the trees, and chose not to remake “The Night of the Hunter” while probing its depths. Lee recognized the fundamental truth of Harry’s struggle between those two extremes, despite Harry’s irredeemable transgressions, and the filmmaker repurposed the concept for Radio Raheem’s brass rings in “Do the Right Thing.” In doing so, Lee tipped his hat to a key moment in film history while pushing the material into new territory. That should be a template for other storytellers to follow, rather than the inanity of a remake nobody asked for.
Sure, it’s fun to imagine actors from today that might inhabit Mitchum’s swagger. But the appeal of “The Night of the Hunter” has more to do with the way it deploys this memorable character into an environment that hovers somewhere between the real and imagined versions of national identity. Stanley Cortez, Orson Welles’ cinematographer on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” compliments Laughton’s vision of a slow-burn fever dream as the children in Harry’s sights escape his grasp, fleeing across an expressionistic countryside equal parts John Ford and F.W. Murnau in its evocative details. The Great Depression provides a remarkable framework for exploring the expansive isolation of a country drifting apart, and it feels just as timely today.
While Harry’s tattoos may have lasted the ages, the most distinctive moment of “The Night of the Hunter” for this viewer comes near the end of the third act, as the kids hole up with Gish’s Rachel Cooper, and Harry hunkers down outside. Their nightlong standoff begins with his eerie baritone rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and concludes as Rachel sits by the window in silhouette, harmonizing with the lunatic outside. It’s a gripping depiction of the immortal dance between fear and courage, so well-executed it transcends the boundaries of time and place to become a lesson for the ages. And look, nobody can remake that.
“The Night of the Hunter” is available on Amazon Prime. Sign up here for a free Prime trial.