The Noirvember Files: The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter is a film noir that doesn't concern detectives or femme fatales, but upholds a sinister quality to make it one of the most unforgettable films in the genre.
Adapted from a novella by Davis Grubb, the story follows Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-described 'reverend' who moves from town to town giving sermons on the forces of love and hate (which he has tattooed on his hands) and bewitching the townspeople who aren't able to see the wolf in sheep's clothing. Harry has ulterior motives however, preying on the weak and kind-hearted, with a preoccupation for killing and robbing various women he's able to charm, and taking off before anyone is any the wiser.
Briefly incarcerated in prison, Harry learns from his bunkmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) about a stash of cash hidden with his family, leading Harry to his next target for deviousness. He manages to coerce Ben's wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and in a short matter of time becomes her new beau, though Willa's children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) - the only ones aware of where the money is - are not as easily fooled. Much of the film is told from their perspective, and its from this area that The Night of the Hunter resembles a fairy tale - though most certainly one of the gothic tradition.
There are several moments in the film which are shot in the style of German expressionism, moving between softly lit sequences against dark and shadowy environments. The portion of the film detailing John and Pearl's attempt to get away from Harry is striking on its own, almost detached from the rest of the film in its atypical and surreal imagery.
Harry embodies the absolute essence of evil, and later his character is later contrasted in the form of an elderly woman named Rachel (silent screen star Lillian Gish), who takes John and Pearl in as their guardian. Rachel is like a Mother Goose-figure, maternal and affectionate, and willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure her kin are protected.
Though the final act of the film feels off-kilter in how it deviates from the film's set-up, it only adds to the nightmare-like effect the film holds on its viewer. Almost certainly ahead of its time, The Night of the Hunter was not a success amongst audiences or critics upon release, and only found its following after several decades. It may be the only film actor Charles Laughton made as a director, but now it's respected as one of the most unique films in the film noir tradition, and arguably one of the best in the history of the medium.