The Night of the Hunter (1955) 4.93/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 97.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 92 mins
Director: Charles Laughton
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

“Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” Charles Laughton’s majestic film tells the story of two orphaned children on the run from a murderous “preacher” who wants the stolen money that their father gave them to hide before being captured by the police. Robert Mitchum was never better as the malevolent women-hating criminal who disguises himself as a man of the cloth in order to get his hands on the cash his cell mate spoke of in his sleep. There have been few performances as brave, captivating, and disturbing and it would surely have been the most memorable feature of the picture if it wasn’t for what first-time director Laughton was doing behind the camera.

More used to being in front of it, Laughton gives a master class in the use of light, shadow, and perspective to give the ordinary and mundane a mythical and otherworldly feel. The film flows with a dreamlike quality with the river-rafting sequences in particular demonstrating an innovation and boldness which few established directors of the time were demonstrating, let alone first-timers. In fact, its subtle manipulations and breadth of imagination give it the psyche-affecting power of those archetypal fairytales we all grew up on.

This sweeping brilliance makes it difficult to pigeon-hole The Night of the Hunter into one particular genre. Some have classed it as a film-noir but given the message of hope and optimism (delivered chiefly through the outstanding performance of Lillian Gish) which powerfully permeates the final act, it would seem to certainly defy that genre’s conventions. At times a parable and at times a deeply cutting satire, this film’s form is defined by an almost whimsical momentum as if Laughton was purposefully channeling the playful and malleable way children (most of all) see the world. And it’s in this achievement that the true genius of the film is realised. However, Laughton’s astounding debut was so reviled at the time of its release (for daring to dress evil in the clothes of a preacher) that he never stepped behind the camera again, depriving us of perhaps one of the truly great directors.

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