“Salvation is a last-minute business,” smiles the sly Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), conman and holier-than-thou villain of Charles Laughton’s 1955 One Film Wonder, The Night of the Hunter. With ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ etched onto his knuckles and a switchblade nestled between his praying hands, this proverb (one of many spewed by Powell throughout the film’s 90 minutes) is certainly not true of The Night of the Hunter’s relentless bad guy. However, with the gift of hindsight it feels strangely applicable to Laughton’s troubled adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name.
Its premise is simple enough. A down-on-his-luck father robs a bank in a last-ditch attempt to ensure a better future for his children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), killing two people in the process. Whilst awaiting the hangman’s noose, he lets slip to his devious cellmate Powell that his stolen haul of $10,000 is hidden somewhere in his rural home, with his young son and daughter guarding the secret to its exact whereabouts. This event sets in motion a cat and mouse chase with Powell charming the late-thief’s widow and inserting himself into the family home, determined to get his hands on the money any way he can, whatever the cost.
However despite a solid text to work from, Laughton’s sole production was reportedly plagued with problems, including an often-intoxicated lead and a rocky relationship with its child stars. That said, these issues didn’t stop the film’s wealth of talent from shining through. Fresh from Broadway, Laughton created an inclusive set off screen and his penchant for German expressionist cinema – with its sharp angles and brooding shadows – meant for some unforgettable – almost dreamlike – visuals on screen too. Mitchum meanwhile portrays Powell as an inhuman figure. A deluded serial killer with the calm resolve of a madman and the quiet determination of a Terminator. Just as poor John and Pearl think they’ve given him the slip, there’s he is – a hymn-singing silhouette on the horizon. “Don’t he ever sleep?” wonders an exasperated John? Apparently not.
When The Night of the Hunter hit screens in the summer of ‘55 it was widely considered a critical and financial flop, forcing Laughton to return to the stage never to helm a feature film again. We’ll never know what a continuation of his inspired aesthetic and brand of filmmaking may have looked like but it’s hard not to see its impact on the modern cinema of today. Would the Coens’ have dreamed up No Country For Old Men’s chilling Anton Chigurh without first seeing Harry Powell? Perhaps not. Cut to 2018 and The Night of the Hunter’s disappointing debut hardly seems to matter at all, with Laughton’s One Film Wonder a regularly fixture on countless ‘best movies ever made’ lists. Proof that salvation really is a last-minute affair.
Words by Simon Bland, Digital Content Officer at HOME.
One Film Wonders runs from Sat 03 – Sun 25 March. Find out more and book tickets here.