In “Night of the Hunter,” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is conning his way into the lives of some naïve small town folk when he notices out of the corners of his shifty eyes a boy staring at his hands. He has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles.
Harry’s a real smooth talker. He says, “Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand, the story of good and evil?” He then begins one of the most memorable speeches in movie history.
And it’s truly one of those scenes that you have to see to get the jokes that have been tucked away in so many movies since from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles in “Do the Right Thing” to “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Harry is a “Bluebeard.” His hobby is marrying widows, killing them, and stealing away with their money. He shares a jail cell with a condemned man who talks too much in his sleep. Harry prays, “Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin’.”
He’ll worm his way into the hearts of that soon to be widow (Shelley Winters) and her two children. And he’ll terrifyingly stop at nothing to get those tattooed fingers around that loot.
Later, in a frightening moment, Harry chases the two fleeing children. They’re trying to reach a boat to float away safely down river. But everything moves – or doesn’t move – as in a nightmare where you run, but your feet refuse to move, as the monster gets closer. Harry emerges from the brambles and lunges at them.
But he sinks into the mud and the children make a narrow escape. Frustrated, he screams. It’s not a human scream though. It’s an anguished and desperate scream, a sound that seems to gurgle and the roar up from the depths. It’s a scream you’ll never forget.
The children find refuge with a woman named Rachel Cooper (silent movie star Lillian Gish) and her home is like an awakening from a bad dream, an idyllic shelter. Unfortunately, Harry is a creature who never sleeps.
Harry and Rachel, evil and good, come face to face, but don’t expect a typical showdown, not in this movie. Think more like dueling hymns: “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”
“Night” – actor Charles Laughton’s first and only movie as a director – is a movie of extremes, of bright sunlight and stark shadows, of youthful innocence and aged corruption, of God and the Devil. It’s a crazy sort of fairy tale movie that flirts perilously with both the sublime and the ridiculous.
It’s a movie that’ll certainly have the eyes of our audience both wide with fear and rolling with disbelief. It’s exciting to see an immensely talented director, also as naïve as the town folk he depicts, charging headlong through darkness toward his idea of light.
“Night of the Hunter” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is probably too strange and too scary for kids. For everyone else, it’ll be unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 4 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.