In 1955 came out the film noir The Night of The Hunter, the first and last movie ever directed by the actor Charles Laughton. Set during America’s Great Depression in the 1930’s, it tells the story of an American family living in poverty and despair, but for whom the worst is yet to come.
To rescue his family from the poverty provoked by the Great Depression, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank. He steals $10,000 and hides it. His son John (played by the young Billy Chapin) is the only one to know where the money is concealed. Sent to prison and waiting to be judged and hanged, Ben Harper encounters Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-professed reverend but also a con man and a murderer. Ben tells him his story, about the money and his family that is left on its own. After Ben has been executed, Harry gets out of prison and decides to go after John’s family for the money. Once Harry has reached the Harper family, he proceeds to swindle the mother (Shelley Winters) by seducing her while at the same time he tries to gain the children’s trust, especially John’s little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in order to find what he is looking for.
In this movie, many topics are being shown through the story of the Harpers: Poverty, the influence of religion, the greed of men, the sad fate of orphans, but also the importance of family and love. This movie is adapted from a novel that Charles Laughton was fond of, with the same title, The Night of the Hunter, written by David Grubb in 1953. With this story and images, different aspects of the American culture are depicted, and certain elements from the novel, for example the Great Depression, are very present in Laughton’s work. We can see an idyllic America with a dark side, hidden in the shadows.
One might think that the presence of Robert Mitchum is the main reason why the movie is so good, but in fact at that time he didn’t have all the success and fame he gained later on. It is true, with the role of Harry Powell, he showed his talent to incarnate evil and fear in a noir movie and his range as an actor, but it is also thanks to the performance of the young Billy Chapin that the film became, in the end, a masterpiece.
Billy Chapin debuted his acting career first on stage and then on screen, and played in a few movies before being cast in The Night of the Hunter, in which he was very convincing as the young child who does not give up to protect his family against the evil reverend.
Both Mitchum and Chapin play alongside Lillian Gish, also called the First Lady of America, whose talent as an actress cannot be questioned and who was a pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques. She plays Rachel Cooper, a woman who devotes herself to helping children and rescues many abandoned orphans. She helps John and his little sister Pearl out as they are chased by the con man. But let us not forget Sally Jane Bruce (in the role of the little Pearl) and Shelley Winters, who both play an important part in this story. Both of these female characters show that it is easy to be conned by a man hiding under the cover of a nice reverend, and that evil resides in anyone.
With this cast and this plot, the movie only needed a director whose vision could make it even more frightening than it already was, and this film noir shows, indeed, an impressive use of texture, color and set. The contrast between light and darkness represents the opposition between good and evil. The children are being chased by a menacing shadow that only wants to hurt them. The reverend’s face is often hidden by the brim of his hat, while conversely the children and Rachel Cooper always seem to stand in the light. With such meaningful images that speak for themselves, there is no need for words or for exaggerated role-play. We can feel what the children are enduring; they are frightened, and so are we. This menacing shadow is also terrifying us, and reminds us of what children are afraid of: the dark.
Not well received at all by the audience and the critics at first, in time the movie came out of the shadows of oblivion and made its way through cinema history as one of the best pictures of its genre. A complex tale of an old America, with an important screenplay performed by an amazing cast.
Director : Charles Laughton
Writers: James Agee (screenplay), Davis Grubb (based on his novel)
Produced by : Paul Gregory
Music by : Walter Schumann
Film Editing by : Robert Golden
Cinematography by : Stanley Cortez
Art Direction by : Hilyard M. Brown
Casting By : Millie Gusse
Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell
Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper
Billy Chapin as John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl Harper
James Gleason as Uncle “Birdie” Steptoe
Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon, Willa’s employer
Don Beddoe as Walt Spoon, Icey’s husband
Peter Graves as Ben Harper
Gloria Castillo as Ruby, one of Rachel’s girls
Paul Bryar as Bart the Hangman
Running time : 1h33