100 films I haven’t seen: ‘The Night of the Hunter’

“Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand-Left Hand – the story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends! The hand of love! Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life.”

Film 11: “The Night of the Hunter”

My excuse for not seeing it: I really don’t have a good one for this. I’ve always meant to watch it.I believe I became aware of this film around the time that Martin Scorcese remade “Cape Fear” in 1991. As a kid, the image of Robert Mitchum with the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on his knuckles was burned into my mind.

Thoughts after watching it: I was always expecting “The Night of the Hunter” to be dark, but not it was more darkly comic than I expected. When Mitchum’s Rev. Harry Powell is hit with rock salt (or was it buckshot?), he lets out a screech that struck me as funny, but it’s mixed with his menace and the sense of triumph you feel when you realize he might be bested. It’s a mixture of emotions that could have easily let one portion overpower the other. Instead, it’s masterfully handled by a first-time director.

I loved the expressionistic look of the film. The outdoor crane shots and the arrest of Ben Harper look great, but director Charles Laughton’s work really shines when it enters more surreal territories. Powell monologuing while driving his stolen car against obvious rear projection sets the perfect tone.

The entire film feels like the distorted childhood memories of Billy Chapin’s John Harper. Mitchum was 6’1″, a fairly tall man, but Laughton frames the shots so that he seems like a giant. And it’s not even just cheating by shooting him from a low angle. Take the image up above. Mitchum is lower than the camera, but he still seems to tower, oozing intimidation.

One moment that stood out to me was the scene with Willa Harper’s body sitting underwater. It’s beautiful and haunting and it was shot with Shelley Winters actually underwater in a tank at Republic Pictures. It’s surreal and terrifying, and also the kind of shot that it’s hard to imagine pitching to the actress.

Powell’s nihilism is balanced nicely by the kindness of Rachel Cooper, portrayed by Lillian Gish, redeeming herself somewhat for “Birth of a Nation.” She provides a nice counterpoint of real Christianity to Powell’s darkness, while also matching him pound for pound with pure grit.

I wish I had watched this movie 20 years ago. Back then I would watch films over and over again. I feel like “The Night of the Hunter” is the kind of film I would have committed to memory like teenage Joe did with “Citizen Kane” and “Night of the Living Dead.” I know I’ll revisit it someday, but between school, work,  family and distractions like my phone, it’s almost impossible to dedicate myself to pieces of pop culture like I once did. That’s not a complaint about my life now, but I probably could have cut out a few pointless 1995 viewings of “Hackers” for more time with “The Night of the Hunter.”

Just for fun: Here are two great songs that incorporate the Love/Hate fist imagery.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Cautious Man”:

I’m going with the Johnny Cash version of Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat,” since Cash’s voice fits with Mitchum’s performance so well:

And who can forget this:


Movies it inspired me to check out: I’ve seen the Scorcese “Cape Fear,” but I should see the Robert Mitchum original. This was Naughton’s only film as a director, putting him in the rare company of single work masterpiece creators like Harper Lee and John Kennedy Toole. I’d love to check out the documentary “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter,” which I assume is a very literal description of its contents.

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