Screened at the Danish Film Institute for the CPH:PIX film festival’s Banned in Denmark series, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter is a notorious, cruelly forgotten gem of post-war American cinema. Although Scandinavians are considered some of the most liberal people world over, they deemed this gore-free film too fearsome to sit through, presumably because of it’s sacrilegious undertones. Over sixty years on, the dark subject matter and menacing central performance from underrated Hollywood powerhouse Robert Mitchum is still electrifying today.
Based on the pulp novel from Davis Grubb, an unhinged and obsessively pious man marries a grieving widow only to find out where her children are hiding a $10,000 booty left by their imprisoned, criminal father. As his first and only time in the director’s seat, Charles Laughton creates a film that is remarkable even by today’s standards; controversially questioning the ever-important issue of piety and oppressive dominance that the church can obtain over society.
Stylistically, Laughton adopts german expressionism, surreal shadows and emotive score from Walter Schumann, Laughton generates great tension and anxiety which looms throughout the film, and over the head of Harry Powell, played expertly by Mitchum. As one of Hollywood’s nonchalant bad-boys, Mitchum is a formidable, yet enthralling screen presence. Adorning a devilish grin and cool composure, he manages to create one of cinema’s most captivating anti-heroes.
Somewhat expectedly for a hastily completed studio film of the bygone golden era, The Night of the Hunter has its fair share of problems. Although Laughton’s artistic flare is ever-present, his ability to self-edit and push a story along hits several bumps, with the film presenting four different endings and Powell being virtually indestructible. Unsurprisingly an influence on John Carpenter’s paragonic Halloween and Michael Myers character, regardless of what you throw at zombified Powell, he always seems to haunt, taunt, and trick the money-laundering children.
Elsewhere, TNotH has several outdated and overtly melodramatic performances, particularly from audacious Hollywood starlet Shelley Winters as the fragile mother and flamboyant Lillian Gish as her snooping employer. Worst of all is the unsatisfying (final) closing moments, which are trite and gloss over the character complexities Laughton has delicately displayed.
But all these criticisms are essentially footnotes to a film which is often heralded as a eternal classic. Idiosyncratically combining horrific and blackly humorous elements, this is a cult American artefact which should never be forgotten. Pick it up wherever you can, just be on guard, you never know where the ghost of Mitchum’s past could be lurking.