Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"One of the most frightening films ever made"

A post at The Anxious Bench lists "#fav7films on Faith," one of which is The Night of the Hunter. The description quotes from a 2010 essay about the film, "Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, revisited," from which:
.... Laughton's movie is steeped in Americana plucked from the source novel: hymns, homilies, revivals, superstitions, and sayings make up its tapestry of Depression Era life. The landscape is at once lush and pestilential, an idyllic America marred by the evil of men and mobs.

That evil is personified by a preacher: Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a homicidal villain whom David Thomson rightly called "one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema." When we first meet Preacher (as he is referred to in the script), he is driving on a country road, fresh off a recent murder and talking to God. "Well, now, what's it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many has it been?" he asks. An emblem of American piety and certitude, Preacher sees his path as ordained by the divine. "You say the word, Lord. I'm on my way."

Into his life comes Ben Harper. An outlaw on the run from the police, Ben is arrested for robbery and murder—but not before he hides his loot and tells his children, 8-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 5-year-old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), not to reveal the hiding place to anyone, not even their mother (a touchingly vulnerable Shelley Winters). Ben ends up in the same cell as Preacher, who has been arrested for auto theft, and spills the secret while talking in his sleep that the $10,000 he stole is still out there. After Ben is executed, the Preacher is set free, and the hunt for the money—really, the children—begins. ....
.... Pauline Kael called it "one of the most frightening films ever made," but its scares come not from Grand Guignol horrors or gotcha moments. There's something deeply primal at work here: The subterranean charge coursing through the picture is our childhood terror of having no grown-up left to turn to. ....

Like Moses rescued from the riverbank, John and Pearl are found by an old lady, Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), a Mother Goose figure who becomes their guardian. ....

...(Gish's) pious Mrs. Cooper is the crucial counterweight to Mitchum's Preacher. Her presence broadens the movie's scope, helping it rise above a mere critique of American parochial fundamentalism to an encompassing portrait of humanity's complexity. Just as LOVE and HATE both reside in the soul of man, so do faith and religion serve a corrosive purpose but an ennobling one as well. If Preacher (and, to a lesser extent, the sanctimonious townsfolk who can't spot iniquity when it's staring them in the face) represents blinkered zealotry and certainty, Mrs. Cooper redeems the purpose of faith, emblematizing Christian compassion and strength. Religion as double-edged sword reaches its expressive apogee in a climactic scene, with Preacher laying siege to Mrs. Cooper's house, singing a gospel hymn—only to be joined in song by the old lady, singing her own words of devotion. .... (more)

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