Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Director: Charles Laughton
Running Time: 92 mins
The Night Of The Hunter is an American film about a man who marries a gullible woman in rural America, and sets about forcing his new children to reveal where their real father once hid a stash of $10,000.
This is a well-known classic of Hollywood, famed for Robert Mitchum’s legendarily evil performance, and some very, very dark themes for its time. Today, however, The Night Of The Hunter is certainly an unnerving watch, but it’s never the booming, terrifying drama that it often seeks to be, lacking a certain intensity and atmosphere to really shock you.
Of course, the film is still an engaging watch, significantly thanks to a striking lead performance from Robert Mitchum. An actor with a wide range of roles through his career, from a delightful stranger in Holiday Affair to a genuinely terrifying criminal in Cape Fear, Mitchum puts in one of his nastier performances, but he’s by far the most gripping presence in the whole movie.
Playing a religious fanatic out of prison, his prowling, almost predatory presence makes him an extremely unnerving character at every moment, particularly when he comes up against the children at the centre of the story. Manipulative and scheming, you’re always on edge as to just how far he’ll go to get what he wants, which makes for a terrifying watch.
However, while Mitchum makes The Night Of The Hunter an unnerving film, director Charles Laughton doesn’t manage to make it a palpably intimidating watch. Captivating it may be as you follow Mitchum’s evil machinations, but there’s a whole other level of melancholy and sadness that’s warranted in this story.
And that’s because, while Mitchum is the star of the show, the majority of the film revolves around the increasingly devastated lives of the two children, who desperately try to keep the secret of a hidden stash of money from their predatory father-in-law.
The trouble, however, is that the children almost seem too strong in the face of a man who has managed to manipulate an entire community and wiggle his way towards uncovering the hidden loot. Of course, the point that the film aims to make is that children are able to see through this scheming, evil man, but it comes a little too easily.
The direction the story then takes in its second and third acts removes an element of urgency from the film, and as such a lot of its intimidating atmosphere. Again, it’s still captivating at moments, but a far cry from the chilling and deeply unnerving story that it should have been.
Overall, then, I found The Night Of The Hunter an engaging film, mostly thanks to the brilliant central performance from Robert Mitchum. However, for a story with a legendary reputation for unnerving and psychologically traumatising drama, the film falls a little short, proving less than terrifying throughout. So, that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.