Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.
Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to find release, and believes God provides for his evangelism by pointing him toward widows with money to act as sacrifices. Powell is by turns charming and savage, ingratiating himself to the townspeople with his pious act in public, cold as the devil’s tail privately. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate”, enabling him to sermonize on the duality of man’s nature:
Listen to Mitchum’s pitch-perfect vocal cadence; he could fit right in as a cable network Southern preacher right now! The Rev has come to this idyllic West Virginia town after being incarcerated for car theft. His cellmate was Ben Harper ( Peter Graves ), a Depression Era man who robbed a bank to feed his family and killed two people in the process. Before being hanged, Harper let slip where he stashed the $10,000 from the crime. Only his two children know the secret, and Powell has ventured forth to do God’s work by finding out where the money’s hid. He woos and wins Harper’s widow Willa ( Shelley Winters ), but Harper’s son John immediately recognizes Powell for what he is, a con man come to steal the ill-gotten gains Dad left behind.
Mitchum creates such a chilling character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, you’ll have no reason to cheer for him. On his wedding night, he berates his new bride for her carnal instincts, later murdering her with his switchblade in their bedroom after she learns the truth about him. The bedroom itself is designed to resemble a cathedral, their bed a sacrificial altar. He cajoles and threatens the kids, growling and howling like an animal, eyes blazing from their sockets like the devil himself. It’s a portrait of pure evil straight out of a horror movie, and Robert Mitchum proves all his talk about being a “one-note actor” was just blarney. But that’s Mitchum being Mitchum, a true artist who was so good at what he did he made it look easy.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by another great actor, Charles Laughton , who used the expressionistic style of silent film directors like F.W. Murnau and especially D.W. Griffith, to the point of casting Griffith star Lillian Gish in the pivotal role of Rachael Cooper, a farm widow who takes in stray youngsters, and becomes the salvation for the Harper children. Miss Gish stands toe-to-toe with Mitchum both in her character and in the acting department, the “Love” to Harry Powell’s “Hate”. The entire cast is superb, with James Gleason a standout as alcoholic “Uncle” Birdie, who discovers Willa’s body at the bottom of the Ohio River. Don Beddoe , Gloria Castillo, and Evelyn Varden also shine in their minor parts.
The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, and a disheartened Laughton never directed another film. It’s our loss, as his baroque stylings made THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER a masterpiece of cinematic art. Today it’s regarded as a true classic, and the performance of Robert Mitchum has a lot to do with that. Along with his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, Mitchum embodies evil unlike any other actor in film. Happy 100th birthday Bob; here’s to 100 more years of audiences enjoying your wonderful work!
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