The Night of the Hunter ★★★★★

One of cinema’s great travesties is that Charles Laughton only directed one official film. So poorly received, both critically and commercially, was The Night of the Hunter that Laughton never helmed another film again. Whilst many works of art go unappreciated in their creator’s lifetime it still begs the question: why were people in 1955 such fucking idiots?

To miss this film’s brilliance is difficult to comprehend. Laughton has created one of the great American films of the ‘50s, a decade positively bursting with classics. It is hard to pigeonhole (and may well be the reason for its poor reception upon release) because whilst it is a noir thriller it feels more like a twisted bedtime story. It blends the greats of American literature and film with that of Germany’s cultural best. It is an uncompromising noir with hints of Mark Twain whilst being shot like a silent German film from the ‘20s and sharing more than a few similarities with the Brothers Grimm dark fairytales. It is a one-of-a-kind and intoxicating mix that has never been replicated. It is this distortion of styles and genres that also helps make it a genuinely unsettling experience at times.

The film is now best known for Robert Mitchum’s towering and frightening performance as the self-appointed preacher and murderous criminal, Reverend Harry Powell. Not only is it his most iconic role but it is arguably his greatest achievement as an actor too. He is charismatic, chilling and enigmatic, helping to create one of the most intriguing and unforgettable bogeymen in cinematic history. Visually the film is beautifully twisted, harking back to German expressionist films with its inky blacks, long distorted shadows, impossible angles and bold compositions. The story, whilst simple, still manages to shock and surprise as Powell’s relentless quest for the hidden money escalates. Its message is as stark as its high contrast black and white photography - even in the face of great evil and corrupt influence of adults, children will endure and remain innocent.

Some may say the film has its faults. They may criticise the acting by the children or the happy ending, yet the child performances are better than that of their contemporaries and, when viewing the film more as an old fashioned bed time story than a traditional thriller, the happy ending makes perfect sense.

Beautiful, haunting, unique and unforgettable. Maybe the real reason Laughton never directed again was because he realised he would never better this masterpiece.