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.
“A mystical slice of Americana noir, this fable about the innate unreliability of adults and the tragic spectrum of human nature sticks in the memory like a stone in the craw. ‘It’s a hard world for the little things.’” Gemma Files
“The Night of the Hunter knows just how unsettling the perversion of innocence can be, building on this premise to create a poisoned fairytale. With his only film, Laughton set out to film fear, and he succeeded.” Pedro Adrián Zuluaga
“Robert Mitchum was the master of the languid gaze, a couldn’tcare- less attitude that, in Laughton’s hands, made the allure of evil totally understandable. Shelley Winters’ Willa might have been a foolish woman for falling under the spell of the preacher with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles, but he offered her something otherwise unimaginable in her small Depression-era West Virginian town. Laughton’s masterpiece was immediately dismissed by audience and critics alike: its visual compositions led it to be suspected of artistry, while its refusal to conform to genre was box-office death. The dreamlike sequences of the children’s escape down the river viewed through an enormous spider’s web contrasted with the angular shadows of the light falling into their room, and all pathways lead to Lillian Gish’s final appearance, cradling a gun on the veranda as she waits, singing hymns, for Mitchum to come for his prey.” Ruth Barton
“Laughton’s career-length frustrations at cinema’s expressive limitations are here redeemed. A journey through the heart of darkness, in which heart and dark have equal weight – just as in Laughton’s acting.” James Swanton