On this tape, as part of BBC2’s Film Club (a slightly more serious precursor to Moviedrome) Actor and writer Simon Callow introduces Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton. Callow wrote a book about Laughton, so he knows his stuff, and this is a very interesting introduction.
The film itself is another ‘classic’ movie. One that’s always referenced with hushed tones, but until now, I’ve never watched it. I’m glad to say that it’s rather good, and another classic that deserves its reputation.
The story features Robert Mitchum, an actor I don’t really have much experience with, as a multiple murderer. Oddly, this is the second film about a man who preys on widows, after Shadow of a Doubt a few days ago. Mitchum is much worse than Joseph Cotten in that film, though, as he’s killed dozens of women. And there’s no whodunnit mystery – we know he’s the bad guy right from the start.
The film opens with a group of young children discovering his most recent victim. It’s immediately unsettling, the juxtaposition of carefree childhood with adult murder.
Rather surprisingly, he’s arrested right at the start of the film, while he’s watching a burlesque show and wondering to himself if he should kill everyone there. But he’s arrested for stealing a car.
Meanwhile, two small children, John and Pearl Harper, see their own father arrested for robbery and murder when he brings home a wad of money and hides it in Pearl’s doll, swearing them to secrecy. The father is played by Peter Graves, off of Mission Impossible.
While in jail, waiting to be executed, he shares a cell with Mitchum, who learns about the hidden money, but not where it’s hidden.
Mitchum is released from prison, and makes his way to the children’s house. The use of shadow in the film is beautiful.
Shelley Winters plays the widowed mother of the children. She has no idea what happened to the money, and she’s prime victim material for a predator like Mitchum. He pretends to be a preacher, perfect cover in an environment like small town America. Another link to a previous tape, this time Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.
They’re married, but she soon starts to see through his veneer of holiness, but she’s not strong enough to stand up to him and kick him out, so he kills her – another piece of striking composition.
He tells everyone that she drive off, leaving him with the children. But we see her true fate is another horrifyingly beautiful shot that must have been really difficult to film, since not only is it underwater, but there’s a strong current pulling the hair and plants, so it probably wasn’t filmed in a regular underwater tank.
The children know they are in grave danger, and manage to trap Mitchum in the cellar while they escape. The only adult nearby is drunk and unconscious so he can’t help. so they get in a boat and drift down the river. It’s another quite haunting sequence, with little Pearl singing a strange song, and frogs and spiders on the edge of the river as they pass. This whole sequence, remarkably, was shot in a studio, not on location.
After a few stops where there’s nothing much for them, they end up on the banks of the river, discovered by an older woman, Lillian Gish. “You two youngsters get up here to me this instant. Get on up to my house. Mind me now, I’ll get me a switch.” and she brings them to her house. But our expectation of another abusive household is overturned when she turns out to be a widow looking after several other children,
“Gracious so I’ve got two more mouths to feed.” She really is wonderful, and the children have a safe and loving environment at last.
It’s almost seeming like a happy ending, but Mitchum turns up in town, and tries his preacher schtick on Gish, who isn’t buying it for a second. Then, when he starts threatening John and Pearl, she brings out the shotgun. I love her so much. Leter, when he comes in at night, she does actually shoot him, but I presume it’s buckshot, so it’s not fatal or anything.
Mitchum is arrested for Winters’ murder, and for the 25 other women he murdered, but the only witness is young John, who’s still traumatised by losing his real father to the police and execution that he can’t testify. The townsfolk want some justice, so there’s even an angry mob.
But all is well, and we have a lovely final scene, at Christmas, where everyone is now happy and safe. Maybe it’s schmaltzy, but I love it.
So there’s another film to add to the list of classics that earned their reputation. And Robert Mitchum is amazing.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 11th February 1989 – 22:05
After this, Callow introduces Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The tape ends shortly into the film.