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Author Topic: NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)  (Read 2685 times)
Rev. Powell
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« on: July 19, 2008, 07:31:54 PM »

I guess it's about time I started a thread about this movie…

The plot:  Rev. Harry Powell, a homicidal, switchblade-toting preacher with the words "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his knuckles, chases two children across Depression-era West Virginia in search of $10,000. 

It sounds like a bad movie plot.  That's what people in 1955 thought, anyhow.  NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was actor Charles Laughton's first, and last, attempt at directing.  The oversensitive Laughton never made a movie again after the public's tepid reception.   Though it's now almost universally regarded as a classic, it was a big box-office flop at the time, despite starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters (before she plumped up real good), Lillian Gish (who came out of retirement just for this role), and Peter Graves (in a small but important role).

The reasons people disliked it back then are probably the same reasons people love it today.  First, Mitchum's performance as Powell is a classic, probably his best role.  (The man really could do a villain: check out his Max Cady in the original CAPE FEAR if you haven't already.  Blows De Niro away.) 

But Powell was not a typical 1950s villain.  Being a sexually repressed, religiously confused slayer of innocent women and hunter of children was pretty extreme and depraved stuff at the time.  But even worse, Powell didn't acknowledge he was evil.  Even though he blatantly lies to get his way, marrying widows only to steal their money, there's no evidence that He's a hypocrite.  He seems to honestly believe that God's a fellow misogynist and He's on his side, commanding him to kill widows ("Lord, you do hate certain things—perfume smelling things, things with curly hair.”)  He seems to literally believe God has sent him the $10,000 to carry on his work.  And he knows his Bible, and uses it.  This kind of grayscale nuance makes Powell fascinating to modern viewers, but it ran against the prevailing zeitgeist of the time. The country couldn't afford to accept villains who might just be misled ideologues, but sincerely believed they were in the right.  Bad guys were supposed to know they were bad guys, like everyone else did. 



The other thing that put people off at the time, but gives the movie a timeless quality today, is it's casualness about reality.  This movie is a fairy tale, a very grim one indeed, and although nothing happens in the plot that's impossible, stylistically the movie takes place in a kind of heightened reality where a powerful image, however unlikely, is just as important as a plot point.  To me the most memorable image is the "fishing" scene, but the water on the river is impossibly clear just so we can take in the eerie beauty of the scene.  The other sequence everyone remembers is the children's flight downriver, which seems to take place on a soundstage with a painted backdrop and various animals placed in the foreground.  It's unreal, almost too beautiful, like an illustration in a children's story.

It's not a perfect movie.  The little girl who plays Pearl isn't up for the role, and the precious moppet would probably be annoying no matter who played her.  And the last ten minutes are a big, confusing, pointless mess: it probably should have wrapped up quickly after Powell is arrested.  But these minor imperfections don't justify taking even half a star off this five star classic. 

Thoughts?
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« Reply #1 on: July 19, 2008, 10:07:32 PM »

First of all, there had been other disturbed, disturbing, and sexually repressed "preachers" in cinema before THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (I'll cite only WALTER HUSTON who played such a character in DUEL IN THE SUN and earlier in RAIN).  There are many films that pushed boundaries of moral "zeitgeist" before HUNTER, and I chalk up the film's initial critical (and commercial) failure to its unusual Expressionistic style, which challenged critics' and audiences' movie-watching "zeitgeist," and less their morality (audiences have always loved dirt.) 

Second, I don't think the last ten minutes are a " big, confusing, pointless mess."  A fairy tale indeed, all true fairy tales must have true resolution - and true salvation - by the conclusion, and this is what LAUGHTON gave us.  I think it's also worth pointing out that the staginess is only one part of the film reminding us of the "unreality" of cinema which I see as an homage to old-fashioned filmmaking.  With LILLIAN GISH, plus some downright cornball and dated effects (such as the telescopic focusing of the children's faces in the cellar window) the film borrows techniques from the then long-gone silent film era, particularly considered the "golden age" of Hollywood in the 1950s. 

Third, the film was based on a bestselling book (by Davis Grubb) and I expect many viewers knew what to expect from this "grim" tale.  There is some interesting duality in the film (Harry Powell visits a girlie show - why? - only to have his switchblade pop out of his pocket...  Lookingup ) and not just the well noted "Love" and "Hate" on Powell's knuckles.  GISH as Rachel Cooper's faith is juxtaposed against Powell's (in the scene where they sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" together...) http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/o/lotearms.htm

All that said, I will say that when this film was broadcast on TV when I was growing up, it was a family event.  I agree it's hardly perfect, but it is wonderfully composed, and aside from ROBERT MITCHUM's stunning performance (it is probably his best) there are other wonderful performances (BILLY CHAPIN is certainly capable as the boy John, JAMES GLEASON as Uncle Birdie is great as usual, and EVELYN VARDEN playing her usual deluded, pushy, bossy, hypocritical Harpy is a delight.)  SHELLEY WINTERS plays another simpering, whiny character (as she had in A PLACE IN THE SUN - another film where her character ends up at the bottom of a lake) and she is perfect for the role.  THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is an influential, important milestone in American cinema, and one of the best films ever made. 
« Last Edit: July 19, 2008, 10:14:31 PM by Allhallowsday » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: July 20, 2008, 04:03:53 AM »

I am not currently up to describing this movie.

I will say that the song the little girl sings about the spider when they first launch off in their makeshift boat haunts me. I really want an MP3 of this song.

I'll talk about it later, but I have a very high admiration of this film.
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Rev. Powell
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« Reply #3 on: July 20, 2008, 01:02:29 PM »

First of all, there had been other disturbed, disturbing, and sexually repressed "preachers" in cinema before THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (I'll cite only WALTER HUSTON who played such a character in DUEL IN THE SUN and earlier in RAIN).  There are many films that pushed boundaries of moral "zeitgeist" before HUNTER, and I chalk up the film's initial critical (and commercial) failure to its unusual Expressionistic style, which challenged critics' and audiences' movie-watching "zeitgeist," and less their morality (audiences have always loved dirt.) 



My point wasn't that there had never been characters like this in film before, only that they were out of fashion in the 1950s Cold War era.  (DUEL IN THE SUN was 1946).  Morally ambiguous characters were popular in the film noir era, but by the 1950s America was more concerned with clearly defined enemies.

Second, I don't think the last ten minutes are a " big, confusing, pointless mess."  A fairy tale indeed, all true fairy tales must have true resolution - and true salvation - by the conclusion, and this is what LAUGHTON gave us.  I think it's also worth pointing out that the staginess is only one part of the film reminding us of the "unreality" of cinema which I see as an homage to old-fashioned filmmaking.  With LILLIAN GISH, plus some downright cornball and dated effects (such as the telescopic focusing of the children's faces in the cellar window) the film borrows techniques from the then long-gone silent film era, particularly considered the "golden age" of Hollywood in the 1950s. 

I think Harry Powell paved the way for the killers in PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, villains who did evil acts, but did them involuntarily in the grips of mental illness.



I still find the ending unsatisfactory.  The lynch mob scene goes nowehere and is pointless.  The Christmas scene is maudlin.  I just wished Laughton wrapped it up more quickly after Powell's arrest--that's the resolution and slavation, Evil has been purged from the character's world.  I agree with the rest of the paragraph. 


Third, the film was based on a bestselling book (by Davis Grubb) and I expect many viewers knew what to expect from this "grim" tale.  There is some interesting duality in the film (Harry Powell visits a girlie show - why? - only to have his switchblade pop out of his pocket...  Lookingup ) and not just the well noted "Love" and "Hate" on Powell's knuckles.  GISH as Rachel Cooper's faith is juxtaposed against Powell's (in the scene where they sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" together...) http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/o/lotearms.htm

All that said, I will say that when this film was broadcast on TV when I was growing up, it was a family event.  I agree it's hardly perfect, but it is wonderfully composed, and aside from ROBERT MITCHUM's stunning performance (it is probably his best) there are other wonderful performances (BILLY CHAPIN is certainly capable as the boy John, JAMES GLEASON as Uncle Birdie is great as usual, and EVELYN VARDEN playing her usual deluded, pushy, bossy, hypocritical Harpy is a delight.)  SHELLEY WINTERS plays another simpering, whiny character (as she had in A PLACE IN THE SUN - another film where her character ends up at the bottom of a lake) and she is perfect for the role.  THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is an influential, important milestone in American cinema, and one of the best films ever made. 



Agreed.
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« Reply #4 on: July 20, 2008, 05:54:06 PM »

Leeeeeeaaaaaaning, Leeeeeeeaaaaaning, Leaning on the everlasting arm.  That has got to be one of the most haunting uses of hymn.  All I know is if I were awakened by it today it would totally freak me out.


I actually love the cat tail in the rocking chair.    As far as the lynch mob at the end, I think that must be a message about the fickleness of the faux religious.
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« Reply #5 on: July 21, 2008, 05:10:38 PM »

Yeah, I love this picture too --
Really didn't find the little girl all that annoying -- Little sisters are supposedto be annoying, at least in our family.
I really thought Mitchum was, if not the devil himself, then a pretty high-ranking emmissary of said.  And I found Gish to be a supernatural being as well -- again, if not a female incarnation of Jesus, then an angelic emmissary at least.  Notice how Mitchum can't walk in past the gate, like a demonic vampire.
Each time I notice new things in this to admire.  Like the interaction of the street urchin orphans when they go into town & the growing sexuality of the young teenaged girl & Gish's innate understanding of her soul.
What a shame that Laughton wasn't lauded more in '55, and a great shame that he never made another film, as he obviously had a gift.
peter johnson/denny crane
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« Reply #6 on: July 22, 2008, 07:57:35 PM »

I wish that Charles Laughton had directed another film, too. But next time, a film with no children in it. For whatever reason, he refused to give any direction to Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce in the film. Robert Mitchum said that he had to step in and direct the children himself.
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Allhallowsday
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« Reply #7 on: July 22, 2008, 10:56:50 PM »

... I think Harry Powell paved the way for the killers in PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, villains who did evil acts, but did them involuntarily in the grips of mental illness...
Huh?  You're crediting that to me? 

I still find the ending unsatisfactory.  The lynch mob scene goes nowehere and is pointless.  The Christmas scene is maudlin.  I just wished Laughton wrapped it up more quickly after Powell's arrest--that's the resolution and slavation, Evil has been purged from the character's world.  I agree with the rest of the paragraph.
I have not read the novel, but I'm guessing there was quite a bit of denoument in the novel, that is compressed for the film.  My favorite part of the entire film is the maudlin Christmas scene where parent-less John realizes he hasn't a Christmas present for this old woman that took in he and his sister, and wraps up one of her own apples in her own anti-macaster...  Bluesad  BounceGiggle   Smile  "That's the richest gift a body could have..."  I love that movie.  Every inch of it. 
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Rev. Powell
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« Reply #8 on: July 23, 2008, 11:31:08 AM »

... I think Harry Powell paved the way for the killers in PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, villains who did evil acts, but did them involuntarily in the grips of mental illness...
Huh?  You're crediting that to me? 


Ugh, quote editing is a pain.  Of course I meant I, REV, POWELL, believe that I paved the way for PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM.  I'm conceited that way.

Good point about the apple scene, though, that is a genuinely touching bright spot in the otherwise lackluster finale.
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« Reply #9 on: July 23, 2008, 11:07:33 PM »

... I think Harry Powell paved the way for the killers in PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, villains who did evil acts, but did them involuntarily in the grips of mental illness...
Huh?  You're crediting that to me? 



Ugh, quote editing is a pain.  Of course I meant I, REV, POWELL, believe that I paved the way for PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM.  I'm conceited that way.

Good point about the apple scene, though, that is a genuinely touching bright spot in the otherwise lackluster finale.
"Where's Ruby?"  "She went...!" 
LAUGHTON through necessity swiftly advises that Harry Powell will be summarily dispatched and John and Pearl will live with Miss Cooper.  Though a festive and picturesque day, Miss Cooper receives no Christmas card or gift from her own children and rebukes them and her mailbox... we're reminded of the real world in the midst of the dark predators that stalk the young, the frail, the meek... Lord love a child, they abide and they endure...
Small | Large
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« Reply #10 on: July 24, 2008, 01:14:47 AM »

I don't really like this movie but Mitchum is very, very good in it.  I watch it every now adn then just for him.
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« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2008, 01:15:32 PM »

Damn, that's a beautiful clip --
Makes me want to see it all all over again --
peter j/denny c
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« Reply #12 on: June 08, 2014, 08:49:51 PM »

Watched it again last night. There are so many amazing images in this movie.







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« Reply #13 on: June 08, 2014, 11:55:14 PM »

Watched it again last night. There are so many amazing images in this movie.





That is a lovely one, and the scene it's a part of is great.  The staginess used in the film is one of my favorite things about it.  I don't have much to add to the discussion but one moment that stands out for me is just after the children get on the boat to evade the Reverend and he lets out this wonderfully authentic howl of rage and frustration.  Gave me goosebumps!
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« Reply #14 on: June 09, 2014, 03:06:30 PM »

This movie, like "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte",were films I didn't even see til I was nearly 40. But they both were amazingly disturbing and became instant favorites.
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