The Night of the Hunter

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: The Night of the Hunter

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime Video

The Pitch: When a preacher-turned-serial killer learns that his cellmate hid $10,000 on his property before he was arrested and executed, the killer decides to visit the man’s property, seduce his widow, and find the cash.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Before he played the deranged Max Cady in Cape Fear, film noir veteran Robert Mitchum starred in one of the most enduring, quietly terrifying movies of his lengthy career. The Night of the Hunter is a gothic horror film tinged with Americana, an exquisitely crafted portrayal of the loss of childhood innocence and the twisted greed of a cunning lunatic.

I love this movie for many reasons, chief among them Mitchum’s towering, intimidating performance as the psychopath at the center of the story, but also for Stanley Cortez‘s impeccable cinematography. This movie lives in shadows, and darkness seems to creep into the frame from every corner, mirroring the dangers of the outside world which the widow’s children are slowly learning exist. The two kids are the real main characters here, loyal to their father’s memory and wary of the seemingly perfect preacher who sweeps their mother off her feet. There are moments when Mitchum’s character gets frustrated and lets his goody-two-shoes facade drop in front of the children, and you get the sense that he will murder them without hesitation if it would result in him getting his hands on the hidden ten grand he’s after.

The whole film is moody, atmospheric, and feels like the vision of a top-tier master filmmaker. And hey, just because this is the only movie that actor Charles Laughton, famous for his roles in Witness for the Prosecution and Mutiny on the Bounty, ever directed, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a master. The movie wasn’t a hit upon release, which apparently caused Laughton to never try again. But there are moments in this movie that could go toe to toe with the greatest and most memorable moments ever committed to cinema: everything from the film’s distinctive look (occasionally abstract and heightened, but never too heightened) to the stellar lead performances and the ever-present feeling of cold dread make it a stone-cold classic.

A contemporary was announced earlier this year, but I can’t imagine it capturing the elements that made this movie so special. The original was tough to find on streaming for a while, so I recommend giving it a shot while it’s readily accessible on Amazon Prime Video.

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