Review - Night of the Hunter - 1955
S P Oldham
It has been a while but I am finally continuing my perusal of the films listed in Wednesday Lee Friday’s ’15 Black and White Movies That Are Scary as Hell,’ posted on ScreenRant on 2oth August 2016. Find it here: https://screenrant.com/scariest-black-and-white-horror-movies-ever-all-time/
As usual I am watching these films out of order, so to speak. Today I chose No 2 on the list, Night of the Hunter released in 1955 andstarring Robert Mitchum, the only film to be directed by actor Charles Laughton.
“Salvation is a last-minute business”
“It’s a hard world for little things,”
“My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot,”
The film moves fast, imparting the story in bite-sized scenes which is surprisingly effective. It manages to do a good job of ‘show don’t tell’ even in these brief takes, which moves the story along quickly. Essentially, a would-be Preacher weds Willa, a newly widowed young woman with two children, in the belief that the children can lead him to the whereabouts of ten thousand dollars. The Preacher knew the children’s father in jail, which is how he came to learn of the existence of the money. Willa is genuinely innocent and knows nothing about it, believing the money to be at the bottom of the river. However, because of a promise forced upon them by their father before he was taken, the children know different. The Preacher intends to get the information out of them by any means necessary.
Mitchum plays the Preacher of course. His character can quote whole passages of the bible verbatim and tells convincing, lively stories to illustrate ‘God’s word.’ However, he is undoubtedly psychopathic, believes he is literally hearing God and acting on his orders, even when those orders include murder. In the Preacher’s mind, the end justifies the means. It doesn’t take long to see the evil beneath the apparently benign surface. It is surprising how we are so unwilling to accept something is wrong, and how readily we will accept assurances otherwise. The film shows this well I think,
The children singing ‘Hing, Hang, Hung’ at Pearl and John after their father is hanged, illustrates the cruelty of children but for me, it also acts as a balance against the evil of the Preacher. Yes, children can be brutal, unkind and hurtful but it is an innocent kind of cruelty, compared to the utter corruption of the Preacher, which is something altogether darker.
Mitchum is sinister, good at being a bully in such a casual manner, the way he dominates the young widow, Willa, played by Shelley Winters, making her preach to others in the town so fervently, making her desperate, even making her take the blame for her dead husband’s actions. She comes to believe that the Preacher was sent by God for the salvation of her soul.
I found it a bit far-fetched that a woman (Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Gish) just takes in stray children without even reporting it to authorities. At least, that is what I thought at first. But then I wondered…
This film has more depth than might at first appear. There seems to be a theme of mental health issues throughout. As well as the Preacher’s psychopathy (is he also a narcissist?) it also shows the vulnerable mental state of Willa and how easily she was brainwashed; the rigid mental state of Icey Spoon (an apt name for her character,) so steeped in the fervour of her religion; the troubled Uncle Billy, who seems to care about the children, but who, despite his promises to the boy that he can come to him in times of trouble, proves to be weak and untrue when the time comes. He is a drinker, perhaps an alcoholic, mourning the long-time loss of his sweetheart. Even when he, a keen fisherman, sees the dead body of their mother in the water, he is too weak and afraid to do anything about it and resorts instead to the bottle.
Then there is Rachel Cooper, who unquestioningly took the children in. She is also suffering emotionally, whereby her need to nurture waifs and strays without recourse to the authorities seems entirely justified to her. As she herself says, “I am a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this old world and I know it, too.” This was in response to a question enquiring about her ‘own son’ whom she hasn’t seen in a long time. She more or less tells us that the children she takes in are a replacement for her own child. She confirms this later in the film.
Then we have the girl, Ruby. A young teen, she believes she has fallen in love with the Preacher, is devastated when he is caught and blames the woman who took her in for his predicament, because it was she who shot him and kept him in her barn until the police arrived.
Obviously, there is the disturbed mental state of the boy John, the main protagonist alongside the Preacher. From the very beginning, John (and Pearl) are witnesses to events a child should not have to see. His father rushes in, wounded and bleeding having just carried out a robbery in which he killed two people, the police hard on his heels. The children see him thrown to the ground and handcuffed, something which has a profound effect on John, perhaps more so than on his much younger sibling, Pearl. Towards the end of the film, John witnesses the same thing happening to the Preacher. In his young mind it seems he is confusing the Preacher with his father momentarily. He reveals the whereabouts of the money when he beats the Preacher’s back with the doll, the notes falling out in the process. The boy declares that the money is ‘too much’ and that they don’t want it. The police see the money but say nothing.
It could be argued that if you scratch beneath the surface, this film is a look at the fragility of the human mind and human emotions, and in my opinion it does that well, without going into depth. Rather than examining it too closely, it simply presents us with the evidence and trusts that we can work it out for ourselves. If we can’t, well then it is still a good film about an evil Preacher, even if you only take it at face value.
This is NOT horror by any stretch of the imagination, not even ‘old-fashioned’ horror. It is more like a crime story, or a twisted tale of murder and is in fact billed as a thriller, loosely based on a real-life crime.
There is some good imagery, in particular the menacing silhouette of the Preacher on the children’s bedroom wall, and especially the oddly tranquil scene depicting the dead body of their mother, deep in the river, her hair trailing in the current like the weeds. I thought this was very effective and actually stands out as being the most vivid, most striking part of the entire film.
Some great lines and good actors, moody scenes and clever imagery, I can see why this is number 2 on the list. With such a great title, it could really have been a chilling film. It is a title that fits well, yet it is almost as if it belongs to the wrong film, too. This is a ‘quality’ movie, one which I enjoyed watching. Is it scary? No, categorically not. What it is, is thought provoking, interesting and very watchable.