Horror in Black and White: ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955)

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Directed by Charles Laughton (The Old Dark House) and written by James Agee–based on the novel by Davis Grubb–The Night of the Hunter may not, on its surface or from a vague synopsis, sound much like a horror film.

Indeed, if you only read the first available synopsis on the film’s IMDb page, you might pass right by it on the search for something scary.

“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. “

Sound like a dime-store novel, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s where you’d be wrong.

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most intense, terrifying thrillers that I’ve ever seen, and it’s when you dig deeper into the story and its origins that all of that begins to make sense.

Grubb’s novel, you see, was based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers. Born in the Netherlands, Powers moved to Iowa in 1910 with his parents and then later to West Virginia where he met his wife through a “Lonely Hearts” personal ad.

Soon after they were wed, Powers began posting his own ads, courting numerous women, convincing them to withdraw money from their bank accounts, and then murdering them in a small garage he built near their home.

Grubb mined the terror of those murders for his novel and Agee deftly transferred those same raw emotions to his screenplay.

In the film, Harry Powers became Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a traveling and clearly psychopathic “preacher”–complete with tattoos of the word “love” on one hand and “hate” on the other–who marries widows, takes them for everything they’re worth, and then disposes of them.

Powell’s psychology and psychopathy are interestingly laid out by Laughton. This man with his warped religion equates arousal with the desire to kill, and it is even suggested later on that he might be sexually impotent, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Early in the film, Powell is in a burlesque house watching a dancer. As he becomes more entranced by her, his left hand–tattooed with the word “hate”–suddenly clinches into a fist, reaches into his coat pocket, and seconds later the blade on his switchblade suddenly cuts through the fabric of his coat.

You don’t have to be a devoted student of Freud to put those images together.

Powell is arrested at that very club and taken to jail for 30 days because it was discovered that he was driving a stolen vehicle. In jail, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man on trial for murdering two people and stealing $10,000 from them. The police have been unable to find the money and Powell becomes obsessed with it.

When Harper won’t tell him where he hid the money, Powell bides his time, and upon release from jail and finding out that his cellmate is scheduled for execution sets about finding just where that money went.

In order to do that, he begins to ingratiate himself into the Harper’s former family. Pretending to be a chaplain from the prison and using a few of his old tricks, he soon manages to marry Ben’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters), who experiences her first bout of uncertainty on their wedding night when he seems uninterested in her physically.

He manipulates her, uses her hysteria to enhance his vile sermons, and seems to suck the very life out of her.

He soon discovers, however, that Willa knows nothing about the money’s whereabouts. No, it’s her children who know, and once he’s disposed of her in a scene that is as lyrical and beautiful as it is frightening, he turns his murderous attentions upon them.

The real terror in The Night of the Hunter begins when Powell discovers the children’s secret.

Laughton takes his time telling this story. It never feels rushed. In fact, it feels almost as methodical as Powell himself, and it is glorious in black and white.

The shadows feel alive, and as they move across Mitchum’s face, it’s far too easy to catch glimpses of the monster inside the man and the menace behind the charismatic preaching.

There’s a lot to unpack in The Night of the Hunter. It’s worthy of much more in depth writing than I have time for here, but I will say this:

It was one of the first of its kind to shine a spotlight on a cold-blooded serial killer, much less one who turns his attentions on a pair of young children, and Laughton and his fellow creative infused every ounce of menace into the film. It would go on to influence countless others that came after it.

What’s remarkable is how absolutely heart-wrenching it can be at the same time.

In a pivotal scene in the film, the children escape Powell on a river skiff and as they float away, the boy collapses into unconsciousness in the boat and the girl (whose singing voice is dubbed by club singer Kitty White) begins to sing a haunting lullaby written by the film’s composer Walter Schumann).

As the boat floats along the river and the lullaby swells, they pass through lily pads and cattails, a single frog watches from the bank, and you can almost lose yourself in the sadness of it all.

It would be remiss not to mention the remarkably talented Lillian Gish’s performance in the film, as well. I won’t go too much into her role as it would give away too many spoilers, but she’s one of those incredible women whose tiny stature can fill an entire room and the full force of her talent is on display in the film.

If you’ve not seen, The Night of the Hunter, add it to your watchlist, now! Gather a few friends, turn off the lights, and enjoy this genuinely scary movie tonight!

For more Horror in Black and White check out last week’s entry: Eye of the Devil.

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