A Time of Running

The Night of the Hunter, written by James Agee, based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper) and Peter Graves (Ben Harper) (1955): This dark American fairy tale was the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed, as it bombed at the box office. In the decades since its release, it’s come to be acknowledged as a classic, its influence seen in such filmmakers as David Lynch and the Coen Brothers (the latter of which would be the only filmmakers I’d trust with a remake).

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a Depression-era itinerant faux-clergyman and serial killer who murders widows for their money (and because he gets off on doing so). While in jail for a car theft, he learns that his cellmate — set to be hanged — stole and successfully hid a big wad of cash somewhere on the outside.

So Powell woos his cellmate’s widow (Shelley Winters) while trying to ferret out the location of the money from the only two living people who know — Winters’s son and daughter. Powell fools everyone with his schtick except the boy. Soon there will come, as the Faulkneresque Davis Grubb novel the film’s based on notes, “a time of running.”

Mitchum’s performance is singular and stellar — he’s a charming, creepy monster with a (real) tremendous singing voice. Billy Chapin, playing the 10-year-old boy, does lovely work as he defiantly opposes Powell while trying to keep his younger sister — and the money — safe. Their escape down the Ohio River, with Powell always somewhere close behind, is staged as an almost mythic journey.

Laughton uses a lot of silent and early sound film in-camera visual effects to achieve certain things (forced perspective being the most notable, but he also deploys the ‘iris-in’, a silent-film technique not much used since, oh, about 1929). The black-and-white cinematography glistens. The characters straddle the line between verisimilitude and allegory (or in the case of some supporting characters, caricature). And somewhere at the end of the line waits silent-film star Lillian Gish, embodying canny good. An odd, great film. Highly recommended.

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