Charles Laughton, one of the greatest of movie actors, has enjoyed an illustrious career both in British cinema as well as in Hollywood. He was responsible for delivering some of the most memorable characters that moviegoers had the pleasure of knowing. Be it the exuberant and sharp-witted judge from Witness from the Prosecution, the defiant Roman senator from Spartacus or the menacing and tyrannical newspaper boss from The Big Clock, Laughton has managed to entrance everyone with his distinctive and naturalistic acting style that set him apart from many of his peers. However, when he finally made his directorial debut, the reaction was not quite what he had anticipated. The film was The Night of the Hunter – which was based on a 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb – and Laughton would never make another film again.
I’m guessing there were several reasons for that. But I’m quite sure of one. To begin with, there is the complete absence of a relatable central protagonist. Instead, the main character here is one of the most despicable characters ever put to film, a misogynist serial killer who pretends to be a preacher called Reverend Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum. There are two words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on the knuckles of his left and right hands. When he steals a car after a recent crime, he is arrested by the police and sent to jail. He shares a prison cell with Ben Harper, a man who has been arrested and sentenced to death for killing two people during a bank robbery. He has two children named John and Pearl and before he got arrested, he managed to hide the money inside one of Pearl’s toys. When Powell learns about this, he desperately tries to get Harper to let him in on his secret but in vain. However, when Harper lets slip a Bible verse during his sleep, Powell takes this as a clue and surmises that Harper’s children may know something about it.
When Harper is finally executed, Powell decides to woo and marry his wife Willa. The plan is successful and Powell tries his best to be the kind and doting father to the two kids. No one suspects a thing at first until Powell, when left alone with the kids one night, asks them about the hidden stash. John begins to suspect him and tries to protect his little sister from him. He denies knowing anything, much to Powell’s frustration. When Willa discovers this, she begins to suspect him too but decides to turn a blind eye to it thinking that her husband intends only to show her the true path to salvation. Powell murders her later and dumps her body in the river. Now that he got her out of the way, he proceeds to threaten the children and finally learns the secret. But they manage to get away from his grip, along with the hidden loot. They come across the home of a friendly yet tough old woman named Rachel Cooper, who decides to take them on. Powell eventually learns about their whereabouts and this leads to a violent confrontation.
The film is notable for its striking and haunting imagery as well as the chilling performance from Mitchum.That gravelly voice and menacing expression are sure to give anyone nightmares. Many cinematographers have mentioned the indelible impression the film has left on their minds. With its innovative camera work and expressionist style, it may be the most experimental black-and-white film I’ve seen this side of Citizen Kane. It’s impossible to forget the shot of the submerged body of Willa in the river or the image of the children on the river trying to escape from Powell in a raft or that of the silhouette of Powell on horseback while looking for them. But the one sequence that truly stands out is the one at Rachel’s home when Powell is outside her front door singing a hymn and one of the kids comes in with a candle, which momentarily obscures Powell’s profile and then when Rachel blows the candle, he is gone. There is something quite eerie and surreal about these images. It’s as if they are taking place in an alternate universe.