Let Robert Mitchum tell you the story of left hand/right hand (or why he's got LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers) playing a mad preacher in Charles Laughton's creepy and terrifying Southern gothic classic.
Dir. Charles Laughton (1955)
Surreal, dreamy, and brilliant, Charles Laughton's only proper turn behind the camera (he had a long and lengthy acting career) is one of the best films of the 50s (and ever) with a legendary performance from Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell. (The film would pair nicely with Mitchum's other staggering performance in The Friends of Eddie Coyle.)
What makes The Night of the Hunter so scary? Why does it cast a strange, lingering spell? Some of that can be credited to the story, based on the novel by Davis Grubb and adapted by the brilliant and prolific writer James Agee. (Agee's credit on the film has been controversial.) Mitchum is seductive and smooth as Powell, using his "preacher" status to charm the town and to hide his all-abiding evil, an evil so entrenched that he kills his newlywed wife (a young, gullible Shelley Winters) and chases his young stepchildren over hill and dale, looking for a hidden fortune. The beautiful cinematography by Stanley Cortez (who also lensed The Magnificent Ambersons), starting with the image of Lillian Gish floating in an inky black sky, dotted with stars, gives the story the feel of a fable imagined while sleeping. The credit on the film certainly goes to Laughton, and it's a shame that its commercial and critical failure on its initial release stopped him in his tracks.
This film is a must-see for anyone who wants to be film-literate, because when it comes to the movies, The Night of the Hunter has cast a long shadow. The staging of the scary scenes are utterly familiar, and the beautiful scene of a body floating in the water has been reimagined in plenty of films. More recently, David Gordon Green's 2004 Undertow plays like a virtual remake (and it's quite good). However, the best tribute to the film comes from another masterpiece, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. We're mesmerized by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) as he explains his LOVE and HATE brass knuckles, in a scene that pays tribute to the preacher's LOVE and HATE speech, and in this case, we have Raheem ending it and updating it with the "Left-hand Hate/K.O.ed by Love."
Of course, like a gun in the first act, saying the preacher's words can't end well...
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