Film Review: ‘The Night of the Hunter’


“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” This is the cautionary, biblical advise offered up by Lillian Gish’s kindly foster mother at the outset of The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s seminal Depression-era thriller. Not only did this prove to be Laughton’s sole directorial endeavour – more’s the pity – it would also introduce audiences to Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher Harry Powell, one of cinema’s most enduringly memorable antagonists. It’s easy, then, to see why it’s now been selected as Park Circus’ latest stellar cinematic rerelease.

Strolling into a West Virginian riverside town with the words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across the knuckles of his weathered hands, Reverend Powell arrives in hot pursuit of his recently deceased, bank-robbing cellmate Ben Harper’s (Peter Graves) final haul, which now lies in the custody of his beloved son, John (Billy Chapin). Worming his way into the affections of John’s mother Willa (Shelley Winters), Powell is all sweetness and light in the presence of the god-fearing townsfolk, but begins to unleash a torrent of psychological abuse upon the Harper family – with John and younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) the main recipients. No longer protected by their mother, the siblings have no choice but to flee the family home.

The film’s amiable brother and sister duo are first made aware of Powell’s chilling presence as his hat-adored shadow casts itself across their bedroom wall, his own unique (and recurring) rendition of Christian hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms echoing into the night. It’s with great reprehension, then, that John must witness the grotesque gospeller inch ever closer to his father’s purloined swag, knowing full well that it represents the Harper family’s sole hope of building a better life for themselves in these most turbulent of times. Mitchum rightfully won the plaudits for his spellbinding lead performance, but it’s journeyed cinematographer Stanley Cortez (Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons) who arguably excels most, injecting each and every scene with a real sense of monochrome menace.

Whatever the reasons, it took several decades for The Night of the Hunter to receive the universal acclaim it undoubtedly deserved, by which point the late Laughton had sadly passed away. Now, thanks to a Park Circus theatrical rerelease, the esteemed British actor and (one-time) filmmaker’s first and final foray in the director’s chair can be appreciated in its original big-screen glory. A haunting, Aesop-like parable of good and evil, The Night of the Hunter is well worthy of classic status thanks to its wonderfully realised cast of Southern players, Walter Schumann’s dexterous original score and Cortez’s enrapturing, expressionistic visuals.

Daniel Green