The Night of the Hunter is a manic fever dream, and that’s actually what makes the film so interesting. Weird and demented, it is almost hard to believe that the film was released in the 1950’s. With that in mind, it’s even harder to believe that this was British actor Charles Laughton’s first and only directorial film. The plot of the film focuses on a ‘false prophet’ who is, simultaneously, a religious man and a serial killer. At the beginning of the movie, with a trail of dead women in his wake, he puts his sights on a grieving widow and her two children after learning that the former ‘man of the house’ stashed $10,000 somewhere before his passing. Harry Powell, the killer, is willing to find this money by any means necessary. Powell is terrifying for a good chunk of the film, as we are only able to see his silhouette some of the times he is present, most notably on the widow’s children’s bedroom wall. Even as he charms those he comes in contact with, we still get the feeling of for his smarminess. The dominating aesthetic of the movie would have to reside in surrealism. When looking at the structure of the film though, it is definitely less cohesive. The Night of the Hunter seems a bit haphazard with technique, almost as though the director knew he would only make one film and decided to throw all his eggs in one basket.
The film begins with a bizarre shot in itself, one of hovering disembodied heads tittering against a dark starry backdrop. Followed by aerial footage of the town here the film takes place, and lifelike location exteriors, we see many camera tricks from Laughton’s cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The more notable tricks being those that showed Powell’s memories of a dancer through what seems to be a keyhole, that, and when Powell confronts the children through the front door of their home and the iris shot reveals them to be watching through the cellar window. This embodies the surrealism that takes hold of most of the tone and atmosphere of the film. Interior scenes, sharp and dramatic, seem almost horror like and almost evoke a sense of fear, whilst the scene where the children escape Powell by river seems to evoke a sense of fantasy and fairy tale due to the backgrounds and stage-like sets. All of these things are purposeful it seems, to instill somewhat of an hazy and impressionistic view upon the viewer. The movies star spectacle though, would have to be the ghastly shot of one of Powell’s victims, tied to the bottom of a car in the belly of the river. This scene is almost humorous, in that we see the victim’s hair, floating like the seaweed in concurrence with a fisherman’s hook floating nearby.
Scenes like these are what make the film. Whether implemented by Cortez or Laughton, it’s hard to deny the talent that the film puts on display. Especially since the film itself doesn’t need visual cues such as these to reinforce the horror and thrill of what is happening on screen. The third act of the film, takes a sort of turn. The act focuses primarily upon the older Lillian Gish, who supports and takes care of ’exiled’ children. Those children include John and Pearl, the widow’s children, who come to her when their boat comes to break on her shore. Lillian is an actual woman of faith, and not the distorted and chauvinistic kind that Powell displays in the film. This is most particularly apparent when the two opposing forces perform an opposed duet to the tune of “Leaning on Everlasting Arms.” If you want to simplify it even further, Powell is evil, or hate, and Gish is love, or good. The Night of the Hunter uses these strengths as a vehicle to carry the philosophical message of the film, and does so excellently.