The Night of the Hunter ★★★★

Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter” (1955) is one of the greatest of all American films, but has never received the attention it deserves because of its lack of the proper trappings. Many “great movies” are by great directors, but Laughton directed only this one film, which was a critical and commercial failure long overshadowed by his acting career. Many great movies use actors who come draped in respectability and prestige, but Robert Mitchum has always been a raffish outsider. And many great movies are realistic, but “Night of the Hunter” is an expressionistic oddity, telling its chilling story through visual fantasy. People don't know how to categorize it, so they leave it off their lists.

Yet what a compelling, frightening and beautiful film it is! And how well it has survived its period. Many films from the mid-1950s, even the good ones, seem somewhat dated now, but by setting his story in an invented movie world outside conventional realism, Laughton gave it a timelessness. Yes, the movie takes place in a small town on the banks of a river. But the town looks as artificial as a Christmas card scene, the family's house with its strange angles inside and out looks too small to live in, and the river becomes a set so obviously artificial it could have been built for a completely stylized studio film like "Kwaidan" (1964).

Everybody knows the Mitchum character, the sinister “Reverend” Harry Powell. Even those who haven't seen the movie have heard about the knuckles of his two hands, and how one has the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on them, and the other the letters L-O-V-E. Bruce Springsteen drew on those images in his song "Cautious Man”:

"On his right hand Billy'd tattooed the word "love” and on his left hand was the word "fear” And in which hand he held his fate was never clear”

Many movie lovers know by heart the Reverend's famous explanation to the wide-eyed boy ("Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?”) And the scene where the Reverend stands at the top of the stairs and calls down to the boy and his sister has become the model for hundred other horror scenes.