Warning: This post contains SPOILERS
It didn’t take long for me to get to this month’s selection, which is Charles Laughton’s 1955 film noir The Night of the Hunter. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a corrupt, self-described preacher in 1930s West Virginia, who has married and killed many widows for their money. While serving a month-long sentence for stealing an automobile, Powell overhears his soon-to-be-executed cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) talk in his sleep about $10,000 he hid with his family. After his release from jail, Powell seeks out and courts Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters), in an effort to find the location of the money. However, the only ones that know the hiding place are Ben and Willa’s children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
The Night of the Hunter is a film that can be seen as a demonstration of how film noir is more a style than it is a genre, since even though the plot of the film isn’t what you would typically think in regards to film noir, the film is undoubtedly of that style. While technically The Night of the Hunter is crime drama, the plot of the film almost plays out like it is a horror film. In fact, the film has an almost Psycho-like twist, a full five years before Hitchcock’s film, where top-billed actress Shelley Winters is killed off halfway through the film. This helps to establish Harry Powell as a terrifying villain and it also serves to establish John and Pearl as the true protagonists of the film, with the two of them eventually finding shelter with tough old woman Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).
The Night of the Hunter carries its influences on its sleeve, particularly Harry Powell’s creepy habit of singing hymns at night, which is quite reminiscent of Peter Lorre’s whistling in Fritz Lang’s M. The Night of the Hunter is also an influential film in its own right, particularly the iconic image of Harry Powell’s L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattoos on his hands, which have been referenced countless times throughout popular culture.
Despite the fact that The Night of the Hunter is more than 60 years old, the films within the film remain quite relevant. In fact, Harry Powell is probably now even more terrifying, since he is the ultimate persona of the predatory male. This is seen early on in the film by his poor treatment of Willa, who he seduces into marriage, yet refuses to show her any real affection. It is in this regard that Harry Powell is a true Christian fundamentalist, who only believes that sexuality be used to bear children. In fact, until she is killed by Harry, Willa becomes swept in his religious zealotry, in a desperate effort to please him.
I do have to say that The Night of the Hunter is a true masterpiece and one of the key films of the film noir style.