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Back to 1955: Night of the Hunter

by Heath Holland

Welcome to the first installment of “Back to 1955!” For the next ten weeks, we’re going to hop into our DeLorean time machine and revisit a movie from the year 1955. First up is the Robert Mitchum thriller, Night of the Hunter.

You might be wondering “Why 1955? We have DeLorean! We can go anywhere!” Well, I wanted to start our first time-traveling adventure with the year 1955 for a couple of reasons, but the most important one is the Back to the Future connection, with 1955 being the year Marty McFly accidentally ended up in when he went back in time. I don’t think that the filmmakers of BttF chose 1955 by accident; I think 1955 is a pivotal year for entertainment, because we can trace the birth of Rock and Roll, the dawning of Disney’s golden age, and the mainstream success of television as competition with movies to this one year in history. The effects of these three factors on the movies of 1955 were staggering. Culture, moods, and values were all shifting, and 1955 marks a clear line in movie history; most movies made before 1955 feel a certain way and the movies made afterward feel another way. Perhaps no movie better represents this shift than Night of the Hunter.

This film is a doozy. It’s hard to classify, hard to define, and even harder to explain. It’s technically a film noir, but it doesn’t necessarily line up with the kinds of movies we typically associate with the noir style. Set during America’s Great Depression, Ben Harper (Peter Graves, Mission: Impossible, Airplane) robs a bank and is sentenced to death for the murder of two people. He confides to his cell-mate, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past) that he has $10,000 hidden somewhere. What Ben Harper doesn’t know is that Harry Powell, despite professing himself as a preacher and born-again-Christian, is a con-man and murderer who has a knack for getting money from rich, single women and widows before he kills them. Powell gets out of jail and heads straight for Ben Harper’s wife (Shelly Winters, Lolita, The Poseidon Adventure) and his two kids. Terror follows.
I’ve watched a lot of noir. The criminals that populate noir films are often sympathetic and flawed; they’re usually good people who resort to dark deeds because of circumstance. Their motives are often understandable, and you get the sense that any of us are just a couple of bad days away from being in our own noir story. Another one of the hallmarks of film noir is that the criminals almost always get caught and brought to justice in the end. Even in movies that glorify violence and the criminal way of life, like 1950’s outstanding noir Gun Crazy, feature criminals that are ultimately punished. This usually means that they get caught or killed in the last couple of minutes of the film and lament their evil deeds by saying something like “If only I hadn’t done that one thing that started it all!” There’s a repentance at work near the end of most noir movies, a humanity that pervades through the darkness.

Or at least there was, up until 1955. Robert Mitchum’s character in Night of the Hunter is a monster. He’s completely remorseless; he hates women but he’s drawn to them because of the power he has over them and the weakness he sees within them. He has a penchant for switchblades. He has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles, the first time that had ever been seen in a movie, as far as I’m aware. Mitchum plays Harry Powell with a frightening country swagger; he’s a gentleman on the surface, but there’s a visible darkness that he can’t hide. He spends most of the movie talking about God and salvation, but that’s in stark contrast to the murder in his heart and the blood on his hands.
There were things in movies before 1955 that you knew were happening, but that you didn’t necessarily get to see. Hitchcock was the master of this, letting your imagination fill in all the gaps and the gory details, and it was Hitchcock who took things to new levels in 1960 with Psycho. However, I really believe that Night of the Hunter has some of the most disturbing imagery ever committed to film up to that point. I remember the first time I watched this movie, not being fully prepared for how dark things were going to get and being stunned at where it was taking me. Old movies are supposed to be safe and fun; they’re not supposed to make me uncomfortable. This movie goes there. This movie threatens children with violence. This movie kills good people because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This movie pulled a “Ned Stark” in 1955.

All this was brought to the screen by Charles Laughton. If you don’t know the name, you’d probably recognize the face. The English actor played Quasimodo in 1939’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and was known for his dramatic chops and thespian performances. Have you ever seen those old Saturday Night Live sketches where John Lovitz played “Master Thespian?” The punchline would always be Lovitz doing a flourish with the word “ACTING!” I always think of those when I think of Charles Laughton. This was the only film that he ever directed (or at least, that he’s credited as directing), and it’s a real shame that this movie wasn’t received very well, because who knows what we could have gotten from him in the future? Laughton was clearly not afraid to venture outside the box and upset a few apple carts along the way. He chose to film his movie in the exaggerated expressionistic style, with deep shadows and harsh angles, heightening the tension and making the whole story feel surreal. It was a bold choice, and it works like gangbusters. I can’t explain why audiences didn’t respond well to this picture at the time of its release except to speculate that it was a few years ahead of its time. It really does foretell what was to come in the next decade, especially 1960’s Psycho, which showed audiences dark things that they had never seen committed to film before.
Time has been kind of Night of the Hunter in nearly all respects. Today it enjoys a legacy that many films would envy, and everyone who has seen it comes away raving about Mitchum’s performance. It’s influenced many directors over the last half-decade, and it is one of the few classic films that manages to walk to line of absolute darkness without falling in. In 1992, Robert De Niro was nominated for an Oscar for his performance of Max Cady in the remake of Cape Fear. De Niro owes EVERYTHING about his performance in that movie to Robert Mitchum, not only for ingesting and regurgitating his performance from the original 1962 Cape Fear, but for basically recreating Mitchum’s character from Night of the Hunter verbatim. This movie is “Exhibit A” that 1955 marked a change in tone for mainstream cinema, with Mitchum’s character representing something new at the movies. It wouldn’t even be that much of a stretch to call the character of Harry Powell one of horror’s first slashers. He’s even wearing a mask, it’s just a different kind.

And now it’s time to return to the present day. I’ll see you next week when we hop back in the DeLorean to visit another of 1955’s cinematic gems.

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