Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is justly heralded for its craft, and I’ll join in the lament that Laughton never got the recognition he deserved for this. A debut like this in today’s scene would yield Oscars galore—and this got zilch. Fortunately, we are able to appreciate just what he accomplished here, drawing from German expressionism and the silent era to give us a twisted, eerie fairy tale with an equally twisted villain at its center. Robert Mitchum is incredible here, and I love that he never overdoes it, despite his character being a virtual psychopath. Those scenes of him in shadow as he croons “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” are perfectly pitched, in particular. I couldn’t get them out of my mind after the film ended, they were that effective. No wonder the character has remained a fixture in our collective consciousness all these years later.
The recently-departed Billy Chapin is quite strong as the distrustful John, too. At first I was skeptical, as child performances can be so hit-and-miss, but his turn was a hit (and Sally Jane Bruce’s Pearl was very cute, too). When the film brings them to Lillian Gish’s Rachel, however, I couldn’t help but feel it ends anticlimactically. I know fairy tales are supposed to be didactic, but Laughton really doles out the fuzzies in characterizing Rachel as the mother figure John and Pearl never had. And then Rachel’s final monologue, about how children are such helpless dolls that need protecting… that has not aged very well, admittedly.
Still, this film is so damn beautiful to look at, and so chillingly effective, that these faults are easy to overlook.