The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A film showing the darker face of religion when the wolf comes in sheep’s clothing. In this case, Robert Mitchum plays a great wolf, and as he usually is a scary one too.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
1h 32min | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir | 24 November 1955 (Argentina)
A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery.
Director: Charles Laughton
Writers: James Agee (screenplay), Davis Grubb (based on the novel by)
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Plot Summary

Harry Powell is a lifelong crimimal doing time with a one time thief, Ben Harper, seeking only to secure his kids’s future. To Harry it’s all about greed. While in prison, Harper tells Powell about his huge stash from the crime and Harry Powell dedicates himself to getting it. Posing as a preacher, he infiltrates Ben Harper’s town and family as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” but find that money from the secrets he shared with his children isn’t going to be easy.

Director and Actors

This is actor Charles Laughton’s only credited work as director. He has a very recognizable face. You may know him as the hunchback in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sir Wilfrid Roberts in Witness for the Prosecution, or any other of his many successful roles in film. I admire his direction in this film, the characters all seem focused on the same page. The “page” is something that would have been a real taboo in that day. Preaching is often mocked to make a point. Even though we know the villain is no preacher, all the significant particulars relating to religion tend toward a reality that isn’t flattering. This would seem to be the intended message of the director.

Robert Mitchum is just scary as all get up in this. I’d say it comes close to Cape Fear as such. I suppose it you’re religious, you view him as worst of the worst because he’s posing as a man of the cloth. If you’re not, you might see religion as the evil here. Either way, he’s a truly bad dude doing really bad stuff out of greed. Shelly Winters plays Willa and does a really good job as such. Nonetheless my favorite character in the film is Rachel Cooper played by Lilian Gish. She comes later in the film but is such a strong force. She helps build a lot of plot to a climax. She’s the real hero of this story.

My Take on the Film

This is an oldie from 1955. It carries that air of mystery you might sense in an Alfred Hitchcock film. At the same time, there is the classic look everywhere like in the wooden houses or even the archaic farm equipment. The boats, the wardrobe, everything reminds of a time long ago. One aspect that isn’t far off though is the evil that people do in the name of religion. Toward the end of the film they seem to redeem faith but in the first 2/3 of the film religion in general is portrayed in a bad way. No one can deny it enables the villain to have access to the wife and her kids. Most the film is suspense, drilling down on the wife and kids. Mitchum is at his best faking religious drawl as he seeks to extract the location of the money from the kids. The film stays on that for a large chunk and it is enjoyable, a definite thrill ride. But when the kids see fit to escape, we are relieved of the suspense, Mitchum is free to play an all out evil wolf, and a slightly different air rises up in the film. It’s more a stalker film at that point. I enjoyed the dialect and story of the film. It was also very well cast.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who’s seen Robert Mitchum as an evil character in a film knows he is unmistakable and talented as such. This is no exception. Watching him weave his wiles as a preacher in the family and as Willa’s new husband in hypnotic. He is very convincing. You find yourself saying “No No Willa, think of your kids” as she’s taking her vows. His smug face is so perfect for the role. If you’re hankering for a suspense filled black and white from the 50’s, I highly recommend this one!


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