The Night of The Hunter is an exercise in the purity of filmmaking. It is a seamless, beautiful American picture, a taut thriller, full of artistic expression and wonderful performances and moments of striking beauty. But it is often overlooked much like its star, Robert Mitchum, who never received the accolades of his peers like Cary Grant. Mitchum was, often times, the anti-hero in Hollywood who made his career in film noir playing the villain. He was rough around the edges and never carried with him that polished sheen of Grant or someone like William Holden. And yet, here he is in his finest film role playing an enthusiastic man of God, a slick pastor who uses his religion as a mask to disguise his wickedness.
Mitchum plays Pastor Harry Powell, a man who might quote the scripture as he is committing a murder. And after his crime, he might have a conversation with God about why he had to do what he did. This is where we meet him anyway, driving a stolen car speaking to the sky, telling God his reasons for his sin. Before long, the pastor is arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing the car. In prison he shares a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a father and husband destroyed by the depression who kills a man and is condemned to death. Before he was arrested, however, Harper stashed away $10,000 where only his young son and daughter know the location. Pastor Harry gets wind of this and decides to pay Harper’s family a visit once he gets out of prison.
Ben Harper’s family lives in a river town that looks like the inspiration for those Hallmark Holiday village collections. Pastor Harry romances the widow of Ben Harper, Willa, played by Shelley Winters as a tightly-wound window teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Before long, Pastor Harry has married Willa and begun his extended interrogation of the children, John and Pearl, who refuse to tell him the whereabouts of the cash. Pastor Harry’s inquiries start slowly, but they build and intensify. It is no spoiler to say that Pastor Harry kills Willa by drowning her in the river that runs alongside the town, because the reveal of her death is the most memorable shot in the entire picture. The death of Willa sends the children fleeing in a wooden boat, down the river with Pastor Harry tracking them on the banks of the river.
This journey down the river adopts a dreamlike state that has permeated every scene in The Night of The Hunter. Here, the dream takes over, as spider webs and toads and rabbits appear in the foreground like monsters, dwarfing the children in the boat. They eventually make it to the next town and are taken in by Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who runs an orphanage of sorts and is a stern, loving mother figure. Gish takes on the Pastor as he arrives in town and tries to work his way into this extended family much like he did with Willa and the children. Mitchum’s Max Cady from Cape Fear began creeping into my head as Pastor Harry tries to smooth talk his way into the family by approaching the eldest of the children under the eye of Miss Cooper.
The Night of The Hunter is a straightforward tale delivered with flashes of brilliance in the cinematography and art direction. The sharp angles and oppressive nature of the house where Willa and the Harper children live creates a certain horror element, and Mitchum’s pastor is the perfect villain for this created world. The knuckles of his hands, the right reading L-O-V-E and the left reading H-A-T-E, have been immortalized by anything from Bruce Springsteen to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. As the children fall deeper into the nightmare hold of Pastor Harry, so the elements of the narrative grow more extraordinary until they come out of it on the other end of the river. Where things feel safe again under the watchful eye of Miss Cooper. Her faith is stronger inside than anything the Pastor may offer through lies and deception.