Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?
1930s West Virginia: A condemned man brags to his bunkmate that he hid $10,000 in his house before his arrest. Then the bunkmate is paroled and tracks down the man’s widow and her two children like a heat-seeking missile. He is a conman; a snake-oil salesman masquerading as a “reverend” and only the mother falls for his lies, eagerly trusting in the kindness of strangers. He kills her, and he’d kill the children (or “Chilll…dren!” as he intones) too if they hadn’t slipped through his fingers and into the hands of a tough-as-nails, god-fearing matriarch.
Sure, the story is good, but it’s the performances that make The Night of the Hunter memorable. He is Reverend Harry Powell, played with exquisite perfection by Robert Mitchum — Hollywood’s sleepiest and most unlikely leading man. He’s tall, towering over the children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) and their mother (Shelly Winters, an actress who made a career falling for the wrong man) like a bogeyman. He is, in a way. And with the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on his knuckles, he’s one with conviction. At first, you might think the reverend act is a scam, but once Powell starts conversing with the Lord, you wonder how deep the act goes.
Released in 1955, Night of the Hunter wasn’t an instant success, but it has persisted, remaining in circulation thanks to a generation of filmmakers who fell under its gothic spell. None more so than Spike Lee, who lifted Powell’s oft-repeated tale of love and hate, and transformed it from menace to exaltation when he placed it in the hands of Radio Raheem for Do the Right Thing.
In the history of cinema, Night of the Hunter is an aberration. It was the first, last and only film directed by Charles Laughton, better known as an actor who specialized in larger-than-life performances. Film critic James Agee, working from David Grubb’s novel of the same name, penned the script, but Agee was an alcoholic at the end of his rope (he died from a heart attack on May 16, 1955, three months before the film’s release). Then the movie flopped at the box office and Laughton — who hated working with the children — walked away from the experience a bitter man.
Yet, Laughton’s mark on cinema is iconic. Even audiences seeing it for the first time feel like they’re on familiar ground. Maybe it’s because Mitchum’s performance has weaseled its way into our collective consciousness, and not just his tale of right-hand/left-hand, but also his whole relentless demeanor.
Or maybe it’s the hero, the real believer of the movie, Rachel Cooper (played perfectly by Lillian Gish), who reminds us, “It’s a hard world for little things.”
It’s been over 60 years since Night of the Hunter was first dismissed, and the world has only gotten harder. The Harry Powells are among us; what’s a little thing to do?
On the Bill: The Night of the Hunter. 4 p.m. Sunday, May 6, Dairy Arts Center, Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, thedairy.org.