Golden Oldie: Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum in 'Night of the Hunter' - (The Guardian)

Would you like me to tell you the story of the right hand and the left? The story of good and evil? With one hand inscribed hate, the other love,  Reverend Harry Powell stood to become one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history – but it was only years after the initial release of ‘Night of the Hunter’ that Robert Mitchum’s diabolical killer truly imprinted on the history of cinema. The story of Charles Laughton’s noir masterpiece is the definition of golden both on and off the screen.

Directed by an actor and based on a book which itself was inspired by the murders of two widows and three children in West Virginia, ‘Night of the Hunter’ was bathed in controversy from its point of inception. Robert Mitchum pushed hard for the part of the killer preacher but only got the role when Gary Cooper passed on the lead citing the film as being ‘dangerous’ to his career. The film would merge Southern Gothic with German Expressionism to create a haunting portrait of life in the dustbowl. Beyond the visual poetry and gritty story is a heart of darkness which inspired filmmakers, if not audiences, from the moment it was released.

A success only in retrospect, ‘Night of the Hunter’ flopped upon initial release both commercially and critically. Telling the story of killer Harry Powell who pursues two children along the Ohio River, the film’s gothic stylings and dark storytelling found no connection with audiences of the time. Whilst the careers of stars Bob Mitchum and Shelly Winters would survive, Director Charles Laughton would never step behind the camera again. The film was lost to the wilderness until a resurrection by Martin Scorsese who mined it heavily for his remake of ‘Cape Fear’ in 1991. ‘Night of the Hunter’ was selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress National Film Register a year later, and is now considered a masterpiece in the history of American cinema. In 2008, Cahiers du cinéma placed the film second only to ‘Citizen Kane’ in a list of the greatest films of all time.

A brilliant piece of cinema, ‘Night of the Hunter’ has grown from an overlooked masterpiece to an institution of filmmaking, with an influence that can be seen in the work of a who’s who of contemporary masters. Truly a golden oldie.

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