I recently re-watched a movie which has somehow slipped quietly from everyone’s minds, Night of the Hunter (1955). Really, though, it never was in anyone’s mind as it failed to appear anywhere in the Oscars, even in a year that was slim pickings and saw a half dozen movies selected which would be lauded and lost without a backward glance (back then such a fate for the Oscars was rare, and the movies from the year before are still household names: On the Waterfront, Rear Window, Sabrina). Perhaps there should be no surprise that Night of the Hunter should pass unnoticed; it is such a strange film that anyone setting out to watch it will be shocked and maybe upset. Want to watch an old movie with Robert Mitchum? Well, here he is but he is no friendly man but Preacher Powell, a widow-killer who goes wherever money might be. Perhaps the darkness of the film means we have film noir on our hands? Well, the only virtue in the film is to be found in a child (John Harper) and an old woman, not in some jaded middle-aged bogartian man. This could be a horror movie but even the unnatural horror of the murdering preacher fails to captivate us and only serves to give us a nightmarish tunnel vision, a focus in which we only see the boy, John, and the strain under which he moves.
There is a strong surrealism that corrals our minds and turns us back to John throughout the film. Wherever he turns for help he is brought up short, and no one in his life possesses a character which goes beyond a frustrating mockery of personhood: doting old men and foolish women surround him and he is forced to keep his own council and protect Pearl, his young and easily seduced sister, in his own solitude. Even Preacher Powell, with his terrifying, powerful presence, fails to be anything more real than a nightmarish figure around whom light and shadow never seem to be quite right. We are unable to do anything but look at John.
So, with all the attention on little John, what is he doing? He is trying his best not to have himself and his sister killed, and to that end is doing what he can to prevent Pearl from listening to Preacher Powell. If Pearl gives away the hiding place of the money then the murdering can begin and she (along with all the other women) has taken a powerful liking to Preacher Powell. Now, it doesn’t seem that John knows that death must follow if he yields to the fork-tongued words of the preacher, but he has promised his father to keep the money hid, and he knows that only evil can come of Preacher Powell. The overt symbolism of the film can’t fail to bring to mind the temptation in Eden and points to what might have happened if Adam hadn’t yielded to Eve but instead had been willing to die for her. That might seem to be a comment from out of the blue and requiring exposition, but I don’t want to have you watch the movie with an analytical eye, but also couldn’t let you watch it and walk away with only an amused and disturbed state of mind to show for it.
I’ve watched this film again and again and never reviewed it because I couldn’t do it justice (and haven’t here)—there is too much to say and too indescribable an atmosphere in this movie. Watch this movie. It is one of the best American movies ever made. It can be rented on Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube and for the couple bucks you’ll spend you will be sitting down to one of the strangest, most terrifying and most beautiful films you’ve ever seen.