Night of the Hunter, 1955

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish (as Rachel Cooper) appeared in Charles Laughton's only directed film, The Night of the Hunter, a strange little movie which is both an expressionist throwback to silent films (where Gish began her career in 1912) and in other ways far ahead of the contemporary releases of 1955.

The usual photo image from this movie is star Robert Mitchum with "love" and "hate" tattooed on the fingers of his right and left hands, the prop by which his character sermonizes about the battle between good and evil.

As the story progresses we learn with alarm 'good and evil' in Mitchum's characters theology isn't something recognizable by any sane person (it seems to be primarily about taking money from widows, who soon end up dead after crossing paths with this demented preacher).

Gish is an elderly lady who becomes a surrogate mother for a houseful of abandoned and orphaned children during the American depression era.

Along come two more orphans floating down the river near her West Virginia home, pursued by Rev. Harry Powell (Mitchum), who has already killed the fugitive children's mother Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). He married her in an effort to get closer to the money he knows is hidden at the family home, information he gleaned from cell mate Peter Graves (as Ben Harper) before he was executed.

Though the star of Night of the Hunter is a serial killer, Laughton doesn't direct the movie like a typical murderer on a rampage movie, a genre already well-developed by the time 1955 rolled around. Instead Laughton's camera passes over the river and small animals as being at least as important a subject, and the two children who are the center of the movie, John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Bruce) loom ever larger in the tale as it progresses.

It is an odd sight to see Lillian Gish outfight, outsmart and outgun Mitchum, who at the time already had a long string of tough-guy roles in various films (Mitchum seems to be having fun playing Rev Powell as a lethal menace, but also as a ridiculous crackpot). Laughton just isn't willing (or able) to stay within the strict lines of the genre that Night of the Hunter seems to belong to, and by the time the credits appear at the end, the movie is become the only title in a genre all it's own, a Charles Laughton movie, there being nothing else like it.

Besides turning the usual proceedings of a Mitchum action movie upside down, Laughton also spends screen time characterizing the bitterness of the American depression and the toughness of children when they really had no choice in the course of survival.

As has been said in a thousand other quarters of film scribbling: it's too bad Laughton never made another film.

Original Page Sep 29, 2014

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