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Classics Are Badass – “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

the-night-of-the-hunter1The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: September 29, 1955

Want to know where the genius of directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and the Coen Brothers originates from?  Look no further.  Rated #34 on AFI’s 100 Movies…100 Thrills list, “The Night of the Hunter” is deemed as one of the most prominent influences of lyrical and expressionistic film of the 1950s.  It is also the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton, whom you may remember as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939).

While I’ll admit that watching the trailer for this film dulled my expectations, I have to say that this film is really quite good.  Initially, I thought this was going to be like an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” or another one of those desiccated, black-and-white barnyard films where the climax is when a raccoon runs away with Grandma’s freshly-backed apple pie on the front porch.  No, this is far far better.

nightofthehunter1Check this out.  So Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man who has robbed a bank of ten grand is being pursued by the police, not only for the money, but also because two men were killed in the midst of the robbery.  He returns home to hide the money with his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), seconds before he is captured by the police.  Harper is sentenced to be hanged, but while he is in prison, he meets a suspicious convict named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  Powell learns about Harper’s money and is eventually released out of prison.  This is where it gets pretty nuts.  Powell is a self-appointed preacher with the twisted belief of killing women, who arouse men’s carnal instincts, in the name of God.  Tattooed on his knuckles are also the words “LOVE” and “HATE”, a key theme in the story.  Travelling to Cresap’s Landing, Powell finds Harper’s family and manages to charm the widowed Willa Harper into marrying him.  Her son, John, however, is not so easily bought by Powell’s front and retains the belief that Powell is really after the money his deceased father has hidden with him and Pearl.

nightofthehunter2While this is only the premise, the film does get pretty dark with the ever-haunting presence of Harry Powell.  His obsessive, psychopathic intentions are revealed during the second half of the film when he relentlessly stalks the two children across the countryside, threatening them to reveal where the money is hidden.  Adding to the creepiness is the song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, a traditional hymn that Powell constantly croons in the darkness to make his presence known.  Robert Mitchum’s eerie performance of Harry Powell earned the film the 90th spot on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.  One interesting thing to note is that the character was based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who was hanged for the murders of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

nightofthehunter4What set “The Night of the Hunter” apart from other films of the 1940s and 50s was cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s lyric and expressionistic style which he borrowed from German films of the 1920s.  Elements of German cinema which Cortez drew upon were the use of oddly-placed shadows, unique camera angles, distorted perspectives, and unrealistic sets.  These techniques were utilized to elevate the unsettling moods of the film, creating an environment that was disturbingly bizarre and surreal.  “The Night of the Hunter” was also one of the earlier films to exploit narrative dialogue, providing a complementing contrast between what’s presented on the screen and what’s actually heard.  Evidently, we can see the influences that inspired some of Scorsese’s, Lynch’s, and the Coen Brothers’ films.

For a 1950s film, I can safely say that “The Night of the Hunter” is far better than some of the sad excuses for horror movies we receive these days.  It’s well-acted and well-scripted with an original story that stands up to the caliber of Hitchcock.  It’s also only a 93-minute film so it’s not like you’re sitting through “Citizen Kane”, not to besmirch either film, that is.  So be sure to check this one out.  It really is quite BADASS.


One Response

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