Thanks to the great podcast and website Battleship Pretension. If it wasn’t for their regular praise, I never would have known this amazing movie existed.
When I wrote about the original version of Cape Fear, I was pretty blown away by the bygone version of manliness and masculinity (good and bad) personified by Gregory Peck, and even more so, by Robert Mitchum. Back then, I thought Mitchum’s Max Cady was one of the coldest, most terrifying movie madmen I had ever seen. Now, Max Cady looks like a girl scout next to Mitchum’s much scarier, much more ruthless, much creepier Harry ‘Preacher’ Powell in The Night of the Hunter.
Once out, Powell tracks down Ben’s family and quickly ingratiates himself with his widow and the rest of the town. Everyone that is, except young John. Soon a member of the family, Powell’s hunt for the money and his altercations with John quickly escalate until the full extent of Powell’s evilness is shown and the two children go on the run.
At first, I assumed his preacher façade was just that, I disguise to help put people off their guard and ingratiate himself into their community. But as The Night of the Hunter went on, I started to see it as legit. Harry Powell really believes every word he preaches, he seriously thinks he’s a servant of God and that his terrible, terrible actions are Saviour sanctioned.
The guise of preacher also gives him a lot more room to move with hyperbole than your average character. If you had a regular townsperson deliver his dialogue, every single line would seem totally cornball. But somehow, when coming from a preacher, you can understand the locals who fall under his spell, thinking his grand statements, over the top delivery and extreme views are simply a passionate man of the cloth, who believes the Lord speak through him. More than just the costume, it’s also Micthum’s delivery and undeniable charisma that make it work. You believe Powell is totally insane, but you also believe it when he builds a congregation who are willing to follow that insanity to their salvation.
Amazing acting and story aside, The Night of the Hunter might also be the best looking black and white movie I’ve ever seen. The use of the monochrome contrast, the huge amounts of pitch black used in so many amazing shot compositions, the precision lighting where only the absolute necessary aspects of any shot are visible, and never a single inch more. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the black and whiteness of a movie so much before or been aware of how important a part it’s playing in telling the story.
I’m struggling to think of any realistic movie characters more terrifying than Harry Powell. I’m also struggling to think of any movies that reveal the true potential of a terrifying character any better than The Night of the Hunter. He scared the bejesus out of me about five minutes in, yet the movie kept finding ways to ramp up the intensity, the tension and the true extent of his capabilities right up until the final showdown.