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The Night of the Hunter: Hell Never Looked so Heavenly

Craig Shparago talks about The Night of the Hunter.

For the last 11 years, my wife and I have tried to give our daughter Ava an education in film she just can’t get from most media geared toward her, which tends to underestimate both her intelligence and attention span. From a selfish point of view, many movies for kids are simply unwatchable. (I defy anyone to sit through all 85 excruciating minutes of Thomas and The Magic Railroad – it’s the absolute nadir of Alec Baldwin’s career, and yes, I’m including Heaven’s Prisoners.) Don’t get me wrong – like most 5th graders, Ava still enjoys broad slapstick, talking animals and fart jokes; in other words, anything starring Kevin James.

So we’ve tried to counter that by exposing her to movies of real substance: Like North by Northwest, Once Upon a Time in the West, West Side Story—and even some films that don’t have the word “west” in them.

Like The Night of the Hunter, which we watched recently.

Part fable, part fairy tale, part social commentary, this noir thriller was so ahead of its time that it was a critical and box office bust upon its release in 1955, but is now considered one of the best American films of the 20th century. Its expressionistic style is said to have influenced David Lynch, Martin Scorcese and the Coen Brothers, among others. Keeping that in mind, there’s a lot to point out to a kid who has yet to grasp the concept of algebra, let alone religious symbolism. But watching this film through the lens of my daughter made my re-viewing all the more powerful.

Visually, the most striking thing about this film is its use of light and shadow. Shot by legendary actor Charles Laughton (sadly, his one-and-only foray into directing) with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, the film is set in depression-era West Virginia, but is closer tonally to the Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm.

And oh, what a Big Bad Wolf they have to work with.

Robert Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, a psalm-spoutin’, hymn-singin’, widow-murderin’ country preacher with iconic “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on either hand. The epitome of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he spends most of the film charming the adults while preying on two small children who know the whereabouts of a hidden fortune. Many shots of Mitchum are wrapped in darkness and foreboding, especially in an early scene where his ominous shadow appears on a boy’s bedroom wall.

Another amazing scene occurs in a different bedroom, after Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) discovers the reverend’s true nature. The sharply-peaked ceiling transforms the room into a church while Willa lies still, arms crossed—a body in an open casket.

Hell never looked so heavenly.

Imagery like this abounds throughout the film, juxtaposing horror with beauty, good with evil, light with dark. From a submerged corpse’s hair gently undulating like the billowy seaweed around it to the children’s fantastical night flight down the river, to grandmotherly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) cradling a shotgun while the devil’s at her doorstep, there are so many perfectly framed shots, it reads almost as a picture book. A lovely, terrifying picture book.

There’s some indelible music as well. As the children’s skiff meanders down the river past twitching hares, croaking frogs and a not-so-subtle spider web, little Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce) channels the avant-garde of Bjork years before Bjork was even born.

After viewing this masterpiece once again, I was awestruck by its multilayers of meaning, by its masterly use of light and dark and how visuals, words and music can forge endless combinations of creativity. It’s no surprise French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma ranked The Night of the Hunter #2 in its list of the “100 Most Beautiful Films.”

As for Ava, she loved the movie, though she did get tense and scared at times (who wouldn’t?). The next day, I asked her how it inspired her and what meaning she derived from it. She said it made her feel “really lucky” there wasn’t a crazy man trying to chase her down and kill her.

Oh well. Maybe we’d better watch it again when she’s 12. I’d sure like to.