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The Night of the Hunter (1955)

There’s too many of them. You can’t kill the world. 1930s West Virginia. Outlaw Ben Harper (Peter Graves) gets his son John (Billy Chapin) and daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) to swear they won’t reveal where he’s stashed $10,000 he robbed from two men he murdered when the police apprehend him so they can have it when they grow up. He shares his prison cell with serial killer turned preacher Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who determines to find the man’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) when he’s hanged. He charms everyone in the small town. She is convinced he has come to redeem her and he woos and marries her, murders her, dumping her body in the river and chases the children across a Southern Gothic landscape when John accidentally reveals that he and his sister know where the money is … You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide. Beautiful and strange, as haunting and iconic a fairytale as those other standalone monochrome masterpieces, Frankenstein and The Miracle Worker. With a screenplay attributed it to legendary critic James Agee and the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton who substantially rewrote the overlong script, adapted from the 1953 Davis Grubb novel which drew on the real-life crimes of Harry Powers who hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children. It’s a stunning Expressionistic allegory about good and evil with the quality of a Mother Goose rhyme, as Laughton noted. The usually laidback Mitchum is truly terrifying as the monster who seems to materialise out of sheer force of will to murder children while Winters, who had already performed beautifully in the earlier melodrama A Place in the Sun, has another careful role here as the gullible mother. She was studying acting with Laughton whose theatre producer Paul Gregory had found the property. Laughton hired Stanley Cortez to shoot the film along the lines of a D.W. Griffith silent masterpiece with unique sets created by Hilyard Brown and they make images for the ages: far beyond the apparent noir story promised. Lillian Gish’s appearance as Rachel Cooper, a woman who takes in stray children, reinforces the narrative power underscored by Walter Schumann’s music. It was rejected at the time but it has outlasted many of its more lauded contemporaries to be appreciated as a work of true artistry. Sadly it meant Laughton never directed again despite having a version of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead ready to go. What a tragedy for cinema. And what an incredible film, a simply great saga of astonishing power about childhood, fear, family, crime, evil and death. Laughton wanted the audience to sit up straight in their seats again. Mission accomplished. It’s a hard world for little things MM#3333

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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