John Harper: Why “The Night of the Hunter” is not film noir

John Harper

Boscutti - John Harper - Italian poster for Night of the Hunter

It takes more than expressionistic lighting and criminality to make a true film noir picture.

On the surface Charles Laughton’s languid “The Night of the Hunter” has some noir touches but not the necessary depth. Especially in the story. 

As Tony D’Ambria points out, it’s a staight up gothic tale of good versus evil. There is no ambivalence or inversion of traditional values. There is no femme fatale. There is no lure. There is no amorality. Good triumphs over evil and the story ends.

The disturbing story was based on the popular, best-selling 1953 Depression-era novel of the same name by first-time writer Davis Grubb, who set the location of his novel in the town of Moundsville, where the West Virginia Penitentiary (also mentioned in the film) was located.

Robert Mitchum is startling as the murderous self-appointed ‘Preacher’ Harry Powell. A black-cloaked false prophet who carries the truth tatooed on the fingers of each hand. Waiting for the word of God before he murders again, Mitchum can almost see the angels weeping. It’s his greatest performance ever.

Stanley Cortez, who also lensed “The Magnificent Ambersons,” does a superlative job as cinematographer. Layering in light and shadow like a master.

Not so much noir as noirish.


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