Being somewhat resistant to 1950s movies, I put off seeing Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort, Night of the Hunter (1955), for years. Then one evening I bumped into it by chance and thought I’d at least watch the beginning of it. From the moment I saw Lillian Gish superimposed over a night sky like the floating princess in David Lynch’s Dune, I knew this was not your standard 1950s movie. It’s actually not a whole lot like any movie from any time. While it borrows heavily from the best of silent-film technique—in an attempt to make it seem like a film from an earlier time, rather than just about an earlier time—it’s certainly not limited to that, and it frankly seems like a film from a later era as well as an earlier one, and not just because some of the sexual symbolism is surprising for its time. In terms of cinematography alone (Laughton’s vision accomplished by Stanley Cortez), the film is absolutely breathtaking. It’s that look—the stylized beauty of its black-and-white imagery—that gives the film much of its haunting quality.
The story—based on the 1953 best-selling novel by Davis Grubb—concerns a psychotic preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in a spellbinding performance), who specializes in murdering widows for their money. During a stint in jail for stealing a car, he learns that his cell mate (Peter Graves), who is slated to be hanged for a murder committed during a robbery, hid a large sum of money. Working from this knowledge, he marries his cell mate’s widow (Shelley Winters) to get the money. That proves more difficult than he imagines, since only her children know where it is and they won’t tell. After Powell murders her, the children take flight and float downriver with Powell in pursuit. This results in scenes and images that are at once poetically beautiful and terrifying—not in the least because everything is presented as if it were being seen through a child’s view of the world. It’s an altogether astonishing work that makes you wish Laughton had made more movies.