Looking Back at a Classic Thriller: Night of the Hunter

Written by Natale Ryan

Since fall is around the corner, and Halloween is approaching, I thought it would be appropriate if we took a look at one of the most famous classic thrillers of all time – Night of the Hunter. Night of the Hunter is the first and only film directed by Chris Laughton. The film is based on a novel by the same name. It stars Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. Even though this film premiered in 1955, it is still revered as one of the most thrilling and well-crafted films ever made.

The movie opens with Reverend Harry Powell riding off on a horse after he had just committed a murder. In a short monologue, Harry reveals his hatred for people who live a life of ill repute. On both hands, his knuckles are tattooed. One spells out “H-A-T-E” and the other spells out “L-O-V-E.” Across town, we see a man fleeing from the police. He is carrying a bag full of money that he stole from a local bank. During the crime, a man was murdered as well. He approaches his two children, John and Pearl, and stashes the money in an unknown location. The two children are the only two characters, apart from their father, who know where the money is hidden. In front of the children, the father is wrestled to the ground, cuffed, and carted off to jail.

The children’s mother, played by Shelley Winters, comes home just in time to see her husband taken into custody. It is revealed that Winters’ character liked to live a somewhat lavish lifestyle, which her blue-collar husband had a difficult time maintaining. Since the father had murdered a man during the robbery, he is sentenced to death at his trial, and out of pure coincidence, his cellmate turns out to be Harry Powell. It is a rumor throughout the jail that money had been hidden, and Powell, after his cellmate’s death, decides to locate the man’s family. After finding the family, he manipulates Winters to fall for him, marries her, and assumes the role of the children’s stepfather. He attempts to strong-arm the children into giving up the location, but I want you to see film, so I won’t spoil it.

This film has been hailed by critics and other well-known directors for more than fifty years and holds one of the highest rankings on Rotten Tomatoes. Shockingly, the film wasn’t originally a success when it debuted, being met with harsh responses. The film’s director was so broken-hearted after receiving the poor reviews, he never directed again. Over time, word-of-mouth helped the popularity of the movie increase. Film-makers, such as David Linch, known for Blue Velvet, have taken inspiration from the film. Rev. Harry Powell holds the number 29 spot as one of films most feared villains.

The two child actors in this film are superb. The boy is most exceptional in my opinion. John is played by Billy Chapin and was directly casted by the director of the film. His role as the older brother, who by default is now the protector and man of the family, does his utmost to protect his sister. Though the little girl seems whiny to most, I think she does a good job playing a pampered, yet innocent, child who tries to find a father-figure in Harry Powell. The psychological cat-and-mouse aspect of this movie will have you on your toes.

I first saw this film as a young adult. My grandmother was adamant that I watch truly great movies. Once she showed me this masterpiece, I made it a point to share it with others. Even though this is an older film, the settings and music scores are fantastic. This isn’t a religious film in any sense, yet the use of a simple hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms will send chills down your spine when sung by Harry Powell. If you’re a fan of classic films and have missed this gem, I highly recommend that you see it. So go ahead, put yourself in the mood for Halloween!

The Author
Natale is an English teacher in Mokpo. She is from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States. She attended college in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and majored in criminology and sociology. In her free time, she enjoys watching scary movies and writing short stories. Her favorite movies are To Kill a Mockingbird, E.T., and Memento. Her heroes are Snoopy and Audrey Hepburn.

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