The Night of the Hunter starts simply, ends even more simply, and somewhere in between achieves that magic synergy among actor, director, and plot that makes a film a classic. It recalls a time in American cinema when menace could be conveyed with a wriggle of the brow or a slight change in tone, rather than a machine gun or highly skilled team of killers.
Hunter is probably best known for Robert Mitchum's oily portrayal of the woman-hating, psychopathic preacher Harry Powell, and deservedly so. Mitchum's performance, full of self-righteous allure and placid threats, is undoubtedly one of the best of his career. He is chilling and charming at the same time, his every gesture reeking of impending danger. But it's the images brought to life by Charles Laughton, in the first and only film he directed, that make Hunter so compelling.
Although this would be Laughton's sole film as director, his influence can still be found in the work of directors such as David Lynch, as shown by scenes like that of Shelley Winters' freshly drowned corpse resting at the bottom of the river, her hair floating amid the seaweed. At first glance, the film appears to have some of the tackiest production values this side of Lost in Space (the television series, not the over-blown Hollywood version). On further inspection, while the sets may have been cheap, they create a dream-like doppelganger of Depression-era Middle America that lends itself to the story's fairy-tale nature.
The Night of the Hunter is not without its missteps (overbearing score, bits of lame dialogue), but it is truly one of Hollywood's forgotten masterpieces, a fact that prompted the special screening. Gretchen and Julia Dyer, local independent filmmakers, will introduce the film and provide commentary.
"It's totally unique in film history," offers Gretchen Dyer. "There's no other film like it."
The Night of the Hunter screening happens on Friday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2719 Routh St. Admission is $10. Call (214) 981-8807.