The Night of the Hunter
(American, 1955, 93 minutes, b/w, 16 mm)
Directed by Charles Laughton
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Agee was known as a film reviewer of unusual compassion and intelligence, willing to see brilliance in the "B" horror films of Val Lewton and just as willing to chortle at the pomposity of the same season’s "important" films. In 1946, James Agee reviewed the film OUT OF THE PAST for The Nation, and was appalled. "Bob Mitchum is so very sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces." But what the normally astute Agee mistook for disengagement was a romanticism so arch, so fully committed to a spirit of ennui that the screen had simply never seen its like before. Agee must have been surprised, then, at the performance Mitchum gave in Agee’s script from Davis Grubb’s novel, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
In THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Mitchum plays "‘Preacher’ Harry Powell" a charismatic pretender who seduces and murders in order to get at a fortune stashed by a convict named Harper. He wins the heart of Harper’s widow, "Willa" (Shelley Winters) and then eyes her children "John" (Billy Chapin) and "Pearl" (Sally Jane Bruce) for what they know about the loot. Mitchum plays Powell like a volcano, a man who allows those around him to believe that his brutality is a form of religious ecstasy. If they take him at his word, they will surely die. Powell’s romanticism is a blasphemous one, overloaded with eros and starved of love. In films as diverse as HEAVEN KNOWS; MR. ALLISON; WHERE DANGER LIVES; and THE LUSTY MEN; Mitchum played characters in the grip of romance. Possessed by the spirit of romanticism in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, he plays on that familiarity, and twists it inside out to portray a man whose whole existence has become nothing more than an expression of his own id. Only a performer who has come to understand the joy of selfless surrender to love so completely as Mitchum could play a character so utterly immersed in his own desires.
Charles Laughton never directed another film, perhaps because THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is such an eloquent statement of false romanticism, and such a complete aesthetic vision in itself that it required no further elaboration. Frequently, there are images so profound as to make it seem as though Laughton and Agee have set out to do nothing so much as reinvent cinema to suit themselves. There is the evocative trip down the river, amid a world so alive with the creatures of the Ark that it seems a watery Eden. There is the powerful presence of "Rachel," shotgun-toting guardian of the endangered children, as played by Lillian Gish with the same fragile beauty and the same conscience of steel that D.W. Griffith had known in the silent days. There is the blithering Shelley Winters as Willa, a flighty, stupid creature to place alongside Winters’ work in A PLACE IN THE SUN and LOLITA as the pathetic wife of the moment, a creature who is momentarily delighted with her good fortune in love, but who slowly comes to know what we have known all along – that her mate is using her as a way station on a road of deception. Our last sight of Willa restores the beauty Harry Powell had stolen from her, but it is a view we wish we’d never had.
But most important, there is frock-coated Harry Powell himself. The way Mitchum plays Harry, towering, fulminating, and immanently catastrophic, we are all standing in the quaking shoes of the two children whose lives are in such mortal danger. He claims to be a walking battle between "love" and "hate," but hate is clearly the winner in that struggle. Harry Powell is the screen’s most spectacular, kinetic villain/protagonist between Karloff’s Frankenstein and Deniro’s Travis Bickle.
Perhaps Agee could appreciate the manic intensity Mitchum brought to the role, for Agee himself was as meteoric a personality as Powell. During his Fortune days, Agee was once found hanging upside down out of his window in the Chrysler building many hundreds of feet above the ground, while a portable record player pounded out Beethoven at earsplitting volume. He was, he said, merely seeking inspiration. On the wall of his apartment building, one of his neighbors chalked, "The man who lives here is a looney."
Agee died in the back of a taxicab, dismayingly young, of a heart attack in the year of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER’s release. Mitchum was to live a long and spirited life. Both remained their own men to the very end. For a single moment in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, each gave voice to the other’s singleness of purpose and strange integrity.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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