Z To A: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: A tall, handsome “preacher”- his knuckles eerily tattooed with “love” and “hate”- roams the countryside, spreading the gospel… and leaving a trail of murdered women in his wake. To Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), the work of the Lord has more to do with condemning souls than saving them, especially when his own interests are involved. Now his sights are set on $10,000- and two little children are the only ones who know where it is. “Chill-dren!” the preacher croons to the terrified boy and girl hiding in the cold, dark cellar… innocent young lambs who refuse to be led astray.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

The Night Of The Hunter is a child’s nightmare- an expressionistic, fable-like oddity about resilience in the face of evil. The film has stayed with me because it’s about children and how they are able to stand so much horror and pain. The only thing I’ve seen close to it is Terry Gilliam’s critically panned Tideland (2005), which the director defended with the statement: “Children are resilient. When you drop them, they bounce.”

Hunter is also similar to Tideland in the way it is ineffably, relentlessly weird- albeit to a lesser degree. The visuals are stylized, the lighting is stark and the acting is from another world. Robert Mitchum’s Howell is a villain of mythic proportions, and so is his performance. Even though you don’t know him you feel like you know him. The child in you tells you so. He’s the big bad wolf. He’s the stranger offering candy. He’s the monster under your bed.

Or the boogeyman at your window.

He’s also the boogeyman at your window.

This is where the film succeeds. It’s a movie for adults that forces us to watch it like we’re children again.

In fact, Hunter is so skewed in this way that every element is exaggerated, shown to us in the (literal) black and white of a child’s perceptions. At times it’s wondrous and frightening within the same shot. If that doesn’t sum up childhood, I don’t know what does. As its young protagonists, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) navigate this world it’s clear they are effected by what happens but hardly understand it. Most of the adults surrounding them prove to be unreliable, hypocritical or blinded by their own desires.

The visual language used to illustrate this is hard to forget.

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This culminates with a sequence in which John and Pearl flee from home by boat, escaping the clutches of the bloodthirsty, caterwauling Howell. Immediately after the film turns into a visual lullaby: trembling bunnies, moonlit currents, and the sleeping siblings heading toward the unknown. At one point Pearl sings a song called “Pretty Fly” (dubbed by a young singer named Betty Benson) and the overall effect is as calming as it is surreal.

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This reminded me of childhood dreams of my own, of running away on foot or by boat or train, escaping from someone who was still searching for me, not far behind. The danger of being found was constant.

In Hunter these dreams are made real.

The second half of the film centers on John and Pearl being taken in by Rachel Cooper (the legendary Lillian Gish), who gives them the stability and acceptance they need more than ever. This is particularly important to John, who has suffered the most. There are also religious overtones to how Lillian regards and teaches her children- the opposite with Howell’s false piety.

When Howell returns to “claim” his children, this leads to one of my favorite onscreen showdowns in cinema history. You’d expect Lillian Gish wouldn’t stand a chance against Robert Mitchum, but everything in her expression tells you otherwise. The love she has for her children is a force to be reckoned with.

The climax of the film has to be seen to be believed. It’s as strange as what precedes it, and to a certain degree it doesn’t make much sense. Does it matter, though? Not really. The Coen Brothers were influenced by this film, so if you’re a fan you’ll be able to embrace its unusual nature. Are you curious about where The Big Lebowski (1998) got the line, “The Dude abides”? Well, you might want to watch this.

Hunter wasn’t a success when it was released and its director, Charles Laughton, never directed another film. Still, I find it commendable that he made something so strange and singular, a modern day fairy tale that is as nightmarish as it is unintentionally funny.

In fact, one of the funniest moments in the film is Bruce’s reading of the line, “You hit daddy with a hairbrush.” I’ve always thought that little Sally Jane Bruce simply adored Robert Mitchum to death, so much it almost betrayed his character. I mean, seriously- look at the two of them together.

"Look honey- the script says I'm going to cut you up. Isn't that ridiculous?"

“Look honey- the script says I want to cut you up. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Now that’s just adorable. Still, keep in mind that Mitchum will mostly likely creep you out or scare you shitless. Due to that I can’t recommend this enough.


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