Monday, October 13, 2014

The Night of the Hunter

Many horror movies and thrillers today strive for realism. The found-footage style, in which what we see is ostensibly recorded by the characters in the story, are common; movies are praised for being raw and gritty; special effects that are obviously fake, no matter how inventive or stylish, are considered flaws; and when characters behave in ways not considered realistic, the audience screams at those "stupid" people who make it impossible to take a movie seriously.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is not a movie that strives for realism. It's a thriller, for sure, but it's not concerned with being credible or gritty. It's highly stylized, and even though there are no explicitly supernatural events, it has the feelings of a very grim fairy tale. Even though the imperiled protagonists are young children, this is not a children's movie, and in fact, it's downright twisted, almost perverse.

While in prison for stealing a car, "The Rev." Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-proclaimed preacher, learns from a condemned robber (Peter Graves) that he has hidden $10,000 with his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and two young children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). When he's released, Powell works in his way in to the lives of the family, charming his way in and even marrying Willa to learn where the money is hidden. After murdering Willa and threatening the children, he learns the money is tucked inside Willa's doll, but John, who promised his father to protect Willa, leads her away, and they flee downriver, where they eventually fall in with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a devout old woman with a flock of children under her care.

The Night of the Hunter has a lot of elements. It's a crime story and a mystery; it's about religious shame and hypocrisy and personal guilt; it has the visual trappings of a film noir; the two children's trials and tribulations are reminiscent of Hansel and Gretal's; and the salvation and hope provided by Rachel Cooper feels like something out of a Depression-era drama. It's hard to categorize because it's all of these things.

The tone of the picture is dark, even today when looking back on a movie from the 1950s. Children are orphaned and threatened with murder themselves. The black-and-white photography is stark, drawing on the German Expression evident in other film noir, so there are a lot of dark shadows, deep blacks, and harsh lights. When Powell prepares to murder Willa in their bedroom and threatens the children in the basement, the film pulls back the frame, showing the entire rooms surrounded by all encompassing black, do we can appreciate how trapped Powell's victims are. Even his first encounter with the children - a massive shadow of his hat-covered head falling across John through the window - tells us how dark his intentions for the family are.

This "reverend" is a piece of work all right. With "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles, he knows enough religious talk to charm the people who can't see through his lies, and his charming exterior hides a real monster and brute. Just before he's arrested for the car theft, he's watching a dancer on stage, and he flips his switchblade knife out through his pocket (Freud would have something interesting to say about that compulsion). Other hints suggest he's murdered many other women, and when he thinks no one's around, he threatens the children.

The film is loaded with unforgettable images: Willa, dead, tied to her car, and underwater;  Powell standing above Willa, knife out, ready to do the deed; John waking up in the barn and looking out to see a small but familiar black figure on horseback riding across the horizon. That last item suggests nightmare logic; John and Pearl have been floating endlessly down river while Powell merely has his horse move at an ambling trot. No matter how fast they go, he's always right behind them, a real boogeyman in sheep's clothing.

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