Night of the Hunter (1955)

Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton.

This is an exceedingly strange film. Purely as a thriller, Cape Fear (1962) is a better Robert Mitchum picture, but this one has more dimensions and people talk about it more. Laughton's only film as director, it is better liked now than when it was made.

It's a collage of style and tone, sometimes subtle, at other times obvious. Mitchum is at first a comic villain, but then sadistic and crazy. The action can be cartoonish, as when he charges up the cellar stairs. It's often called a fable or fairy tale and perhaps some of the mood comes from the children's point of view, but the material is all mixed together.

It's good in a thriller to see a suspicious kid like John, who has the Preacher's number from the outset and is capable in a survival situation. In the end he doesn't want Mitchum shackled or hung; bad as he is, the Preacher is a type of Father. Such is the confusion of loyalties and emotions.

Many striking images, with a couple of gorgeous segments. The first is when the children escape and are bourn away on the river, surrounded by innocent nature, and Pearl sings her eerie little song. The river takes them to Lillian Gish (whose first film was in 1912 at age 9). She's a saintly tough woman with a shotgun; good thing, too.

A second fine scene is when Gish is sitting up at night, on guard while Mitchum is outside the house watching. He starts that hymn ("Leaning on the Everlasting Arms") and she sings along. It's like an angel and a devil singing the same words but with entirely different intent. Yet they harmonize. When she shoots him he howls like an ape or a demon.

I'd forgotten the last act. What's with the drunken lynch mob scene? We finish with a glimpse of homely paradise and Gish's homily on the endurance of children.

Available on Criterion Blu-ray, which uses the original 1.66 aspect ratio. My thumbnails are from a 1.33 DVD.