“It’s a hard world for little things.”
Oh how foolish I must seem. I gave Spike Lee all kinds of credit for the right hand/left hand speech in Do the Right Thing, a monologue which I thought was one of the strongest points of the film. Well after viewing The Night of the Hunter, I rushed over to IMDB to change my rating in condemnation of blatant plagiarism. Yes, it seems that quite a few big names have referenced or picked up inspiration from this film, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike its noir contemporaries of the 1940s and 50s, The Night of the Hunter has a looser, more enchanting style and a vastly superior sense of pacing. It intersperses its story with little nuggets of charm, often in the form of smaller stories, and it brings a distinct mood which pairs well with the narrative.
The Night of the Hunter follows the story of two young children, John and Pearl, whose father has been sentenced to death for his involvement in a bank robbery. The children are then pursued by the sinister serial killer Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who charms his way into their community in pursuit of the money that the children’s father left behind. Mitchum uses religion to persuade and maneuver his way through the small rural community, finding great success in his perceived position as a spiritual leader. The film is a clever noir tale of deception and manipulation which hits every note wonderfully while still finding room to innovate its genre.
What sticks out the most from this movie is its motif of storytelling. Characters throughout the film will convey themes or lessons relevant to the film’s plot through both songs and anecdotes. Often religious in nature but sometimes more akin to fairy tales, these monologues help the film grow richer and more mystical. John will use stories to convey the severity of the situation to his more naive younger sister, and adults will frequently use them to try and impart moral wisdom on the film’s children. Through this motif, The Night of the Hunter presents itself as a film with lessons to impart. The film’s narrative as a whole is allegorical, with Harry Powell and Rachel Cooper serving as moral foils. When they finally face off in the film’s climax, with the lives of the children at stake, it makes for a significant showdown which carries the film’s allegory to its triumphant logical conclusion.
Another driving factor behind The Night of the Hunter is religion. While I first thought the film was wholly criticizing religion through its portrayal of Reverend Powell, this is a movie which shows both positive and negative religious figures. There’s the unsettling serial killer who uses religious passages and Biblical imagery to manipulate and even intimidate those around him for personal gain, but there’s also the kind maternal figure who uses religion to impart lessons of right and wrong upon needy children. This is a movie which seems to suggest that religion should be judged based on its intentions and its effects and that there’s no sense in condemning or glorifying its practitioners entirely.
Astoundingly paced and masterfully suspenseful, this is perhaps my favorite noir film of the mid-20th century (though I’ve still many yet to see). It’s got a magnetic villain and a unique story which never falters in quality. Every scene seems to serve an important purpose, and the film demands your attention for every precious second due to its high stakes, its captivating mystery, and its smooth progression of events. This is one of those film that’s short to begin with and feels even shorter. There’s not a hint of dragging or tedious exploitation of the audience’s emotions, as these are some of the biggest shortcomings for me in terms of most classic noir. The Night of the Hunter feels modern and clever with its approach to storytelling while still capturing that alluring noir style.
With all of its pieces falling masterfully into place, The Night of the Hunter is a whammy of a thriller which feels like a modern Hitchcockian fairy tale. Its performances only highlight a suspenseful story which has a lot to say about human morality. It’s a film which wastes no time and manages to find greatness in nearly every scene. It’s a shame we never got to see Charles Laughton direct again, because the man had a definite talent for cinematic storytelling, as is evident by this breathtaking piece of cinema.
Films Left to Watch: 899
Also, for those interested, I’ve started writing some articles for MoviePilot. You can read them here.