The Classic Hollywood System is typified by films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, and The Wolf Man, where a kiss implied sex, the sound of a gunshot with dramatic music implied death, and Clark Gable’s famous line in Gone with the Wind was scandalous. It’s the reason your grandparents complain about modern films being too dirty, thanks to the films they saw under the censorship of the Hays Code (as opposed to milder censorship through the MPAA). The code forbade nudity, exiled homosexuals, and put restrictions on the ways in which institutional authority could be depicted. Which is what makes Night of the Hunter (1955), a tale in which parents and other adults in the community fail to protect two children from a widow-killing preacher, stand out as a haunting horror thriller.
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a preacher who roams the countryside looking for potential victims for his holy man con. He believes God is putting people in his path for exploitation (his faith isn’t the con), but plays on the expectations of others with a mighty Tent Revival voice and commanding tales of good vs evil illustrated by the tattoos on his fists. Meanwhile, Mr. Ben Harper manages to steal $10,000, but when cornered by the police, hides the money with his children. After preacher Powell meets robber Harper in jail, Powell sets out to find the money by beguiling Mrs. Harper and her children.
This contemporary Grimm’s Fairy Tale consists of recurring contrasts, both narrative and formal ones: A preacher who kills, bearing fists that say “LOVE” and “HATE,” and the stark juxtaposition of blacks and whites (similar to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi). Few black and white films live up to their moniker, taking on a gray texture as the colors mingle instead. Through most of Night of the Hunter however, lights blast their subjects with crisp whites only to be eclipsed by opaque blacks. Such harsh tones amplify the drama, along with other German Expressionistic touches, such as theatrical A-frames:
and foreboding silhouettes.
The final effect is a lyrical, haunting beauty that recalls Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.
If the children weren’t chased by someone so slick and unsettling, the whole thing could fall apart, stylistic turns or no. Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of the sexually repressed preacher stands as one of the century’s greatest villains, commanding scenes that will leave you aghast at the character’s twisted nature. There’s no mustache twirling with a woman on the tracks though–what’s so revolting is how humanly monstrous he is.
Since the Hays Code was eroding through the 1950’s, that may explain how Night of the Hunter managed to get away with its unusual tale of imperiled children. It’s interesting to see the film embody that erosion within its narrative: Stylistic touches of Classical Hollywood (music, framing, lighting) showcase the children in a way that contrasts with the threat of Harry Powell (German Expressionistic elements mentioned above).
Other great narrative elements have gone unmentioned to avoid spoilers and the film’s famous river scene, which is truly a thing of beauty, should be watched within the film’s context and not as a youtube clip.
Kids on the run from a killer preacher, framed within arresting visuals that you’re not likely to forget–you’ve got to see Night of the Hunter.
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His fists say love and hate, not good and evil.