I went into this movie with very little expectations: I don’t know any of the cast, this was the last film the director directed, and by comparison to a lot of the other movies in the 501 Must-See Movies book it’s much less well-known. A con man and serial killer posing as a priest is cellmates with a man who was part of a robbery that ended with two murders. Ben Harper, the cellmate, has not revealed where the money he stole ended up, and Reverend Powell (Robert Mitchum) wants to take the money for himself.
Using his ‘priestly’ ways, Powell ends up marrying Ben’s widow Willa (Shirley Winters), and then pursues the money through the children. Willa is eventually killed, and in a scene that was shot very well, she ends up tied to the front seat of her car which is at the bottom of a lake. Her hair casually waves in the water as the surrounding seaweed also waves. Powell then has no one in his way at home, and while he keeps his facade up for the townsfolk, he becomes increasingly disturbing to the children as his true nature comes forth.
The children eventually escape and are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who takes in orphans and has a genuine fear of God and strength of spirit. Powell catches up with the kids, and is eventually brought to justice
This movie was based on a real-life incident in the 1930s where a man was hanged for the murders of two widows and three children.
The Night of the Hunter was a box-office and critical bomb in its time. The significance of this film, though, lies in its use of things that are much more commonplace in horror films since its release. Powell calls down to the children while they are hiding in the basement. Who hasn’t seen that elsewhere? Powell also has the words Love and Hate tattooed across his knuckles.
One scene that was handled well was when Rachel was keeping watch, exchanging hymns with Powell as he waited outside, ready to take his money and kill anyone in his way. One of the other kids she takes care of turns on a light that lights Powell’s shadow through the curtains only for a couple of seconds, and then he’s gone when the light goes out. I found myself waiting for the obligatory frightening jump into the screen taking everyone by surprise. This was before that kind of thing was more commonplace, and I found the suspense of that scene to be engaging.
Robert Mitchum plays his part very well. He’s the guy who you know is a phony, but at the same time can understand how the people can take him at his word and fall for his tricks. He’s incredibly creepy, especially in how he handles his stepchildren.
This movie had its merits, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t all that engaged by the film. While the plot and characters seemed pretty straightforward, the simplicity in The Night of the Hunter doesn’t work by comparison to say Rain Man (I only draw this comparison because I just watched Rain Man). The Night of the Hunter has its place in cinematic history and laid many foundations for future horror and suspense films, but for me it just wasn’t something I’d watch again.
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.