Monday, September 3, 2012

Goodnight, Hunter

Night of the Hunter, the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed masterpiece, showed up on the Netflix Instant Watch this week. Last night, during a brisk walk, I regaled my wife with just how amazing this movie is. I'm going to try to get her to watch it. She likes suspense movies (one of her favorites is Red Dragon but she doesn't like Manhunter) so I think she will enjoy "Night of the Hunter."

If you've never seen the movie -- or if it's been too long since the last time you watched it, you are in for a treat. Think of the scariest person you know. Not the scariest movie villain; scariest real person. That person who can intimidate anyone into doing anything they want for fear of brutal retaliation. That's Robert Mitchum's character in the movie. He's a convict who hears the story of hidden money from a fellow inmate right before the storyteller heads to the gallows. With LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, the Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) heads out to find the money. Powell isn't afraid of shedding blood to get want he wants.

Yet it isn't the actual violence (beautifully filmed by Laughton) that gets under your skin. It's the threat of violence, especially to young children, that leaves a lasting mark. Powell torments the children of his former cellmate, chasing after them with a balanced attack of brooding menace and red-hot rage. Mitchum plays Powell like a stalking tiger well before Jason Voorhes picked up his first machete.

One thing that always gets me about this movie is that Laughton never directed another movie after this one. He'd been a successful actor with a variety of roles including Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Captain Bligh in The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Night of the Hunter tanked with critics and at the box, which is probably why Laughton never helmed another picture. He only appeared in four more films after Night of the Hunter. 

(On another horror-connected note, Laughton was married to Elsa Lanchester, known to us for her role as The Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein.)

Laughton pulled incredible performances from Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian GIsh and his two child leads which should have garnered him more work behind the camera. Alas, Night of the Hunter is all we have to show for his directorial work. He also got more out of black and white than many directors ever did. Maybe he learned that from Hitchcock before they both left England for good.

So cuddle up with your favorite suspense fan and watch Night of the Hunter. 

Threat level: RED. Night of the Hunter is a classic film that deserves every bit of praise it gets.

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