We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.
13. Night of the Hunter, 1955
Night of the Hunter, more than any other movie I have ever seen, succeeds brilliantly in evoking the terrors of childhood.
Director Charles Laughton (Robert Mitchum is uncredited, but he directed the children) described it as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” Written by James Agee and Laughton, and based on a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Night of the Hunter is set in Depression-era West Virginia. Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powers, an ex-con who poses as a back-woods minister, marries widows for their money, and then murders them.
Mitchum’s Rev. Harry, silkily sinister with a voice like an oboe, has the word “love” tattooed on one set of knuckles, and “hate” on the other. Rarely has a film so elegantly and so chillingly announced its subject matter.
The plot has Mitchum on the trail of $10,000. Shirley Winters, known for her extravagant, over-the-top mannerisms, beautifully underplays Willa, a lonely and simple-minded widow, who marries Mitchum and brings to the marriage two small children, John and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). As frequently happens with children, John, played by Billy Chapin with steely-eyed suspicion, realizes that his stepfather is not the virtuous man of G-d everyone else sees. Forced to quickly grow up, John become his little sister’s protector.
Alone in the world, and on the run from their heartless and relentless stepfather, the children move through a dreamscape that is terrifying, surreal and poetic. The photography by Stanley Cortez (b. Stanislaus Krantz) recalls German expressionism of the 1920’s, but with a softer, more romantic edge. And the underwater images evoke a dream-like state which once seen is never forgotten.
Night of the Hunter has some of the most lyrical images in film history: the children escape their tormentor in a rowboat, gliding down a winding, moonlit river. As Pearl sings a haunting tune, a menagerie of animals—rabbits, birds, and a toad—watches over them.
Later in the film, Lillian Gish, as the pious Rachel Cooper, guards the children with a shotgun in hand. Poised in a rocking chair, she sings a gospel tune—an other-worldly duet with Mitchum—serene and prepared to do battle against the evil false minister.
The film was panned by the critics and ignored by the public when it was first released. Perhaps that’s why this was the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed.
Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, by Jeffrey Couchman, is an invaluable study of this cinematic masterpiece.
To be continued.