The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 thriller directed by the great Charles Laughton. This one-time director had already been recognized as an Oscar winning actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII, and famous for playing Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even though Charles never directed another film due to its initial critical and commercial failure, it proved to be a cinematic masterpiece. At its core, the film is about the battle between good and evil set in Depression era West Virginia.
However, the film plays out as an expressionistic southern gothic tale that is filled to the brim with indelible imagery, macabre melodrama, and provides equal doses of horror and humor. Robert Mitchum plays what is perhaps his most memorable role as the devious reverent Harry Powell, a false prophet and deranged serial killer who is both attracted and repulsed by women. This nightmarish fairytale is less a condemnation of religion as it is a condemnation of religious extremism, which applies to everything from the bloody Christian Crusades to modern Islamic terrorism.
The theme is a warning of false prophets and beliefs using good intentions to justify evil actions. Charles Laughton uses his direction and lighting to emphasize this theme. Created in the 1950s, the fact that Laughton consciously shot the film in black and white instead of color and used a helicopter to shoot some of the scenes added to the unique cinematography of the film that was unusual for the time. These helicopter shots put the audience in the view of the heavens looking down at the world.
Though this was his only directorial feature, Laughton utilizes experimental techniques, such as an iris closing in on the image, and displays powerful expressionistic methods. Even the sets were designed with painted shadows, abnormally shaped furniture, and jarring architecture angles. In capital letters, the word LOVE is written on Powell’s right hand, and the word HATE is scrawled on his left. This is a perfect visual manifestation of his inner conflict. It emphasizes that he has good intent, but his sins are evil. Laughton’s most famous use of style comes during the famous bedroom murder scene, where the set is designed into the ironic shape of a chapel.
The outline of window light bathes the body of Powell’s impending victim, as Powell, face divided in light and darkness, raises his left “HATE” hand toward the heavens before moving in with his switchblade. This placement of Powell in his own ‘chapel’ where he commits this heinous act further emphasizes the hypocrisy of the false prophet rationalizing his murders with the intent of punishing sinful women and gaining money to preach God’s word. We then see the haunting end of Willa’s lifeless body in a hypnotizing image of her body tied to the stolen car Powell drove at the beginning of the movie, now submerged underwater. She is clothed in a white robe, representing her newfound purity as Willa becomes Powell’s latest baptism. This dichotomy of innocence and corruption serves as a warning to religious extremism. The lighting in the film establishes a sense of suffocating darkness about to envelop the world, particularly emanating from the psychopathic soul of preacher Harry Powell. Scene near the beginning of the movie, at a burlesque house when Harry resentfully stares at a dancer who fits the former description of a “perfume smellin’ thing, lacy thing,” and “thing with curly hair.”
The lighting on the dancer is alike that of a keyhole representing the voyeuristic gaze of the crooked preacher. Seething with pent up frustration, Powell then reaches into his coat pocket and a switchblade knife ejects out of the fabric. This disturbing reaction of his is one example of Powell’s internal war within himself. For Powell, sex is a vial and reprehensible act which must always be met with violence. His presence inside of the Burlesque house isn’t so much as a reflection of him suppressing his urges as it is his desire for giving his crimes a sense of purpose. It’s also a reflective twist of Christ being in the midst of the so-called evils of the world. Overall, the lighting leaves a memorable impression on the viewer. Laughton uses this element masterfully, even though he was unfortunately an unrecognized talent of his time. The Night of the Hunter raises mature themes of good versus evil, and the dangers of what happens when one mixes the two. Laughton’s intent was to expose hypocrisy in religion, as he was a gay man, but his film expounded on not just religion extremism, but the extreme consequences when confused with the duality of good and evil.