The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton's masterpiece remains both gloriously cinematic and utterly terrifying
Masterpiece is a much overused term, but The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 thriller now restored and re-released, genuinely deserves that accolade. Adapted from Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel (itself based on a true story from 20 years earlier) by screenwriter James Agee and director Charles Laughton, this southern American Gothic chiller remains both gloriously cinematic and utterly terrifying almost 60 years after it was made.
Set in the Deep South during the Depression, the film focuses on the efforts of a bogus preacher and serial killer named Powell (Robert Mitchum playing against type as a villain in a role that prefigured his psychotic bad guy in Cape Fear seven years later) to retrieve a hoard of loot stolen by a prison cellmate and stashed away with his children. Following the death of that jail-pal and his own release from prison, Powell woos, marries and murders the dead man's wife (played by Shelley Winters), but before he can get his hands on the cash, her plucky kids make a break. What follows is an extraordinary extended chase downriver...
Laughton, who only ever directed this one film, had his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, shoot it in the style of German expressionist cinema, and he engineered several memorable set-pieces which gives the film its startling cinematic quality and which have subsequently influenced the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. The Night of the Hunter also features top-notch performances from its cast, in particular silent movie star Lillian Gish as the children's god-fearing saviour and Mitchum, who invests the murderous preacher with a truly disturbing believability. The result ranks as one of the greatest movie monsters of all time in a film that remains as powerful as it is unique.
GFT, Glasgow, Fri 17–Thu 23 Jan; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Mon 3–Thu 6 Feb.