As I'm beginning my new "My Favorite Films" series in October, I think it would be appropriate for the first installment to be on one of my favorite horror/thriller films, The Night of the Hunter (1955). I first saw it only five months ago, but its quickly become a favorite since. The film stars Robert Mitchum in what I consider to be his finest role, along with Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves and Sally Jane Bruce.
The Night of the Hunter tells the story of religious psychopath Mitchum who entices and marries a widow (Winters) so he can get close to her children (Graves and Bruce) who know where their father stored $10,000 dollars from a robbery that he was sentenced to death for. The film was adapted from Davis Grubb's 1953 novel of the same name. The novel was influenced by serial killer Harry Powers (also known as the Bluebeard killer of West Virginia), who was convicted in 1923 for the murder of two women and three children.
This was the first and only film directed by Charles Loughton. The film was a failure, both with audiences and critics when released, and Laughton never directed again. This is quite unfortunate for two reasons, the first being that Hunter is such a wonderful film, and the second being that Laughton had so much potential as a director and I often wonder what other films he would have made had it done better at the box office. He has influenced many modern directors, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malik being just a few of them.
Hunter contains two of the most frightening scenes I've ever seen in a film, both with show Laughton's brilliant direction, The first being the shot of Winters body in the lake after Mitchum has murdered her, which kept me awake for hours after my first viewing.
The second scene being the one in which Mitchum is seen from a distance riding his horse and singing "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" as he hunts (no pun intended) for Ben and Pearl. It's almost impossible not to get chills from watching it.
Another reason that makes it so great besides Charles Laughton is the actors. I mentioned above that this is my favorite of Mitchum's roles, and he's so convincing as the psychopath not only in this film, but also in Cape Fear (1962), one of my recent favorites. And even though her performance is so brief (she and Gloria Grahame seem to be the most murdered actress of all time), Shelley Winters adds a lot to the film. Apart from Robert Mitchum, I think the most important presence in the film is from Peter Graves and Sally Jane Bruce, who deserve much more credit for their roles. And I can't not mention Lillian Gish, who does marvelously well in what is sadly one of only two of her films I've seen.
To sum it up, The Night of the Hunter has captivated me since I first watched it back in May, and has continued to do so with others since it's release in 1955. As Robert Ebert stated "It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up ... well after four decades."