Classic Review – The Night of the Hunter (1955)

the night of the hunter 1955

“Don’t he ever sleep?” John laments seeing his would-be murderer in The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Directed by Charles Laughton

Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce

Review by Jordan

To review a film is often seen as critiquing it; observing it’s intent in alignment with it’s strengths and weaknesses and forging an opinion that is then shared with a readership base. A reviewer should be impartial, unbiased and fair, and their points articulate and well supported as they tackle works both renowned and disdained, from the prodigiously recognized highs of  Orson Wells’ classic Citizen Kane (1941) to the almost inconceivable lows of Edward D. Wood Junior.

Throughout the history of film there would be very few realized narratives that can now avoid critical dissection, existing as holistic examples of the moving image unanimously identified as respectable, untouchable. The chilling, thematic and unclassifiable The Night of the Hunter is one such example.

The directorial debut of esteemed actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter also stands as his sole film-making credit thanks to a negative reception and a general consensus of confusion given its unprecedented style and mood. Shame, as even in one film Laughton displays an intellectual touch paired with a Gothic stylistic flourish that could’ve been further utilized in later projects. In the close to 60 years since it’s release however, and despite still being recognized as a cult film, this story praising the endurance of children has garnered a reputation at once tremendous and deserving among the initiated, with the Late Roger Ebert labeling it “one of the greatest of all American films” and citing it as one of his “Great Movies.”


Even the dead are captured beautifully in Laughton’s only film as director

Laughton’s masterpiece follows the brooding, charming and murderous Reverend Harry Powell, a psychotic man of God who explains his religion as “one the Almighty and I worked out betwixt us” and marries lonely widows before killing them, taking their money and moving onto the next town. We meet him shortly before he is arrested for car theft whilst drawing his switchblade in a burlesque house, after which he shares a prison cell with bank robber Ben Harper who is awaiting hanging, and has hidden his $10,000 loot somewhere back home, a sum of blood money that could build one fine chapel. Once Harper has hung and he is out of prison, Powell enchants his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and before not too long is engaged and married to her, all the while threatening her children John and Pearl (one of the most endearing young characters I’ve witnessed) and demanding to be told where the money is…

Doomed from the start (her wedding night is in contention for the worst of all time), Willa is eventually murdered and John and Pearl must flee down the river in search of seemingly unattainable safety, the Reverend following like a living nightmare, silhouetted in the distance and crooning hymns in the moonlight: Leaning… leaning… safe and secure from all alarms, leaning… leaning… leaning on the everlasting arms.

It’s not a matter of if he will find them, it’s when, and whether or not love will win it’s eternal struggle with hate as tattooed on the knuckle of our conniving antagonist, or if left-hand hate will have a rare victory.

Transitioning from suspense thriller, to menacing yet beautifully rich fairy tale and finally film noir, The Night of the Hunter manages to contain some of the most frightening images of all time, as well as a third act showcasing the strength of women in the face of matriarchal adversity and two children (among others) that demonstrate the power that young ones have to overcome great trials. It is a truly phenomenal film that remains as original and powerful now as it was in 1955, painstakingly framed in glorious black and white and edited to jarring perfection, and is the very definition of must-see cinema.

Weird it may be (as evidenced by the appearance of a cane toad and some rabbits in close-up by a steadily flowing river carrying two lost children), but in the best way possible.

5 dolls out of 5

19 responses to “Classic Review – The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. Yep, I watched this a few months ago. It was weird, weird, weird. The cinematography was the best feature of the film. Poor wife! Shelly Winters was perfect. I loved that shot of their wedding night in the asymmetrical bedroom. Outstanding review. BTW, I’d love your thoughts on my most recent post about German Expressionism when you have a moment 😉

    • Oh I’ll be checking that post out for sure! Love me some Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari. I loved that bedroom shot too, like you say the cinematography is truly superb.

  2. This is my favorite black and white film of all time. The use of light and shadow in this film is matched by almost nothing in my opinion. The tension during the beginning of the boating scene, the fear of what a monster like The Preacher could do to the children. Pewrl. MAH NAMES PEWRL. Ahhhhh, love it. It’s such a shame that Laughten never made a film again. It’s of cinemas lost geniuses. Great review by the way.

    • I’m just remembering, because of your comment, there’s a scene somewhere of the outside of the home at night and the way light & darkness used is incredible, I’ll have to watch it tonight and see where the scene is.

    • Glad you agree with me mate, how cool is Pearl? Love it when she falls asleep in an instant when she finds the bed on Uncle Bertie’s boat. Such a tremendous film in every regard.

  3. This is one of the best movies evvvvvvvvvvvvvvver. The underwater scene, which you posted a still from above, and the river ride are stunning, and another little scene I like is Willa’s death scene because she is angel-shaped(that sounds weird) right before he kills so. This movie can be watched passively and still be mesmerizing for the story, suspense, thrills and cinematography but there’s plenty impressive shots & symbols to dissect and go nuts over.

      • Once I saw it, it was one of those movies where I realized how much was taken from it or inspired by it and used in later movies. I can’t grasp what it was like to see this movie when it was new.

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