It's easy to see why The Night of the Hunter bombed on it's original release: It was fundamentally at odds with the mom-and-apple-pie Eisenhower years in which it was released. It's a surreal and decadent film about a psychopath/serial-killer of his newlywed wives who, between working out schemes to dispatch the latest missus, has intimate talks with God. It wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwellesque vision of America, that's for sure. Part bogey-man, part bogus pastor, Harry Powell (played with complete zeal by an unusually over-the-top and creepy Robert Mitchum), shivers in disgust about the carnality of women ….and then he kills them. A vulnerable young widow Willa (Shelley Winters) with two kids and some hidden money, marries Powell and ends up at the bottom of a river. Ophelia, what have you done?
The Night of the Hunter would be the only film that actor Charles Laughton would direct... and that's a crying shame. Laughton, who was 56 when he directed the film, after pouring so much effort into the project, was reportedly disheartened by the film's poor box office performance. He would subsequently choose not to return to the director's chair and died a scant 7 years later in 1962.
This is must-see material for cinephiles for any number of reasons, not least of which is the overriding influence of Laughton's vision. Auteur theorists found significant traction here and for good reason. Mitchum's double-barreled acting, the noirish, showy cinematography of Cortez, the surreal set design and the film's exaggerated, expressionist style all coalesce into an entirely adult version of a Disney animated feature.
The Night of the Hunter is a deeply-spiritual contemplation/expose on the eternal battle between good and evil, between religiosity perverted and the purity of human charity (as represented by the orphan's ultimate protector, Miss Cooper, played by an enchanting Lillian Gish). The exaggerated, eccentric expression of this battle is both timeless and poignant, even 50 years on, a lasting testament to Laughton's unique talents as a film maker and storyteller.
A quick note on the box art picture (which is not, unfortunately, the one Criterion ultimately went with). It comes from this site, Eric Skillman's blog and it includes a fascinating piece on the process of producing box art for Criterion's releases. Definitely worth a read.
10/10. Recently restored and just released on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray (spine #541)