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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Night of the Hunter (1955)



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There isn't another movie quite like The Night of the Hunter, a nightmarish journey through a surreal landscape. Nothing is quite realistic in the physical sense, but the film bears an uncanny resemblance to the way dreams and fears feel. It stars Robert Mitchum, who poses as a preacher, cozies up to rich women, kills them, and runs off with their fortunes. He learns about a stash of stolen money from a guy in jail and hunts down his wife and two kids to find it. The kids are the only ones who see through him at first; a disturbing sense of foreboding grows as he ingratiates himself to the woman and the townsfolk. Mitchum's performance is wonderful, ranging from black comedy to something genuinely disturbing.

The film was directed by Charles Laughton, his first and only directorial job. It's unfortunate he was never permitted behind the camera again, because his work here is fantastic. He establishes a complex mood, toned by contrasts of innocence and evil, humor and menace, spirituality and hypocrisy, and the inescapability of a bad dream. There are numerous indelible images in the film, including an underwater corpse, a chapel-like bedroom that doesn't quite seem physically possible, and a duet of Leaning On the Everlasting Arm so rife with irony and contrast as to be beyond description.

Ordinarily, I tend to dislike the overuse of hypocritical Christians as villains in movies. It's a cliche on the one hand, negatively stereotypical on the other. But The Night of the Hunter uses this for more than a gratuitous purpose; rather, he plays an important role in this spiritual fable. Late in the film, a character played by the legendary Lillian Gish shows up. She is a devout and sincere Christian, whose faith is her strength. The last chapter of the film uses these two characters to illustrate the clash of conflicting spiritual principles. Initially, I felt the end of the film to be an anti-climax, but I've revised my opinion upon reflection. For all the dramatized wars of good and evil everpresent in mythology and legend, isn't this the more accurate picture of an ultimate confrontation?

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