The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is a complete one-off, a terrifying parable of the corruption of innocence featuring a career-best performance from Robert Mitchum.

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“Despite its peculiar overtones of humour, this is one of the most frightening movies ever made (and truly frightening movies become classics of a kind).”
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1991

It’s a tragedy for film history that Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort was such a critical and commercial disaster that he never made another. An adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel, the film is refined to a lucid allegory. Evil, in the form of fake preacher Robert Mitchum, is visited upon a woman and two innocent children until they’re rescued by Good, in the form of frail Lillian Gish. In its intensely visual treatment of the story it harks back to the great silent films, thanks to former Orson Welles collaborator Stanley Cortez’s marvellously expressive black-and-white cinematography.

As the former criminal convinced that his executed cellmate’s loot is in the possession of his widow (Shelley Winters) – whom he marries purely in order to get his hands on it – Mitchum was never better: charismatic and charming, vicious and violent, his symbolic ‘duel’ between two sets of tattooed knuckles (‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’) provided American cinema with one of its indelible images.

Martin Scorsese drew as heavily on this as he did the original Cape Fear (1962) for his 1991 remake of the latter. Mitchum’s tattoos were explicitly referenced in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

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