Kino Lorber: It’s a Hard World for Little Things: The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Reviewed


Images courtesy of United Artists

"You know, when you're little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are humanity's strongest. They abide."

The Night of the Hunter (1955) begins with a warning to be careful about false prophets and being led astray, as one of the characters preaches over the background of a starry night. The mood feels dreamy and fanciful, like the beginning of a children's bedtime story. This opening transitions over to "Reverend" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) barreling down the road in a stolen car, waxing poetic about his relationship with the Lord and his penchant for murdering women whom he considers to be sinners. The film immediately establishes Powell's character as a hypocritical criminal that uses the Bible to justify his hideous actions. Powell is later shown sitting angrily at a nightclub, taking in a burlesque performance, angrily clenching his fist. A switchblade suddenly pops out in his pocket like a dangerous erection, a phallic symbol and a metaphor for his vicious intentions. He's a misogynist, afraid of his sexuality and projecting that fear and anger onto women.

In a small town nearby, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is on the run from the law, having stolen ten thousand dollars in a bank robbery. He makes it home in time to hide the money, only telling his young son John (Billy Chapin) the whereabouts. Just before he is arrested, Ben makes John promise he will never tell anyone where the money is concealed. Ben killed two men during the robbery and is sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. While waiting out his sentence, he is confined to the same cell as Powell and inadvertently tells him that he has hidden the money with his family. After Ben is executed, Powell goes to Ben's hometown to charm his widow Willa (Shelly Winters) and find the cash.

Robert Mitchum's performance as Powell is chilling; there's something about the way he uses his melodic baritone voice to impart fear on his victims and also to enchant people he wants to manipulate. He has LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his hands, and every time he meets a new person, he tells a fable about how the two emotions interact. The moral of his tale is that whenever there is an internal struggle between love and hate, love is always the victor. Ironically, Powell is an example of the opposite outcome, as he always lets hatred overtake his senses and guide his actions. This monologue is repurposed in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing (1989) by Radio Raheem, a character who wears brass knuckle rings that say LOVE and HATE. In this version, however, Raheem tells the story earnestly to impart knowledge to others to quell violence in the streets. Sadly, Raheem's fate in the film ultimately demonstrates that love doesn't always win over hate.

Powell's characterization directly critiques organized religion and how some of its followers use scripture to manipulate others. The entire film isn't wholly derisive towards religion as it later introduces a pious character in the way of Rachel Cooper (Lilian Gish), the opposite of Powell's evil ways. Rachel takes care of children orphaned by circumstances during the Great Depression and tries to instill morals in them using the Bible. Her presence seems like a way to legitimize religion's "good" side and show that it can be used to help others.

The Night of the Hunter is filmed beautifully using German expressionism techniques, walking a tightrope between arthouse and noir vibes. Powell is a force of dark chaos, a contradiction of sorts, singing hymns as he chases the children across the countryside with nefarious intentions. He is often shown in shadow or silhouette, which is later contrasted with his boyish good looks (that more than a few women have fallen head-over-heels for). The black-and-white cinematography utilizes light and shadow effectively, balancing blinding whites and inky blacks to create a nightmarish atmosphere. Later on, the narrative drifts into a hazy dream-like aesthetic, like a southern gothic Grimm's fairytale, as the children run through the flora and fauna of West Virginia and eventually slowly float down the Ohio River.

Unfortunately, The Night of the Hunter was panned on release, causing the director Charles Laughton to give up on directing films afterward. Like many films ahead of their time, it has been reevaluated as a masterpiece of mood and tension, a grim fable about how wolves prey on lambs and the strong devour the weak. Powell is based on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer that murdered several widows and three children. It could be seen as a redemption for those poor souls who didn't escape in the real world but found solace in this story, in this world of make-believe where good triumphs over evil.


Author Tim Lucas contributes a lyrical and fascinating commentary track that is not only a gorgeous piece of prose itself but also an excellent dissection of the film and its themes. Director Ernest Dickison discusses the impact of The Night of the Hunter on film language, and actress Kathy Garver talks about the behind-the-scenes aspects of working on the project.

Kino Lorber 4K extras:

Brand New HDR/Dolby Vision Master – 4K Scan of the 35mm Original Camera Negative (4KUHD)

NEW Audio Commentary by Novelist and Critic Tim Lucas (4KUHD)

Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack (4KUHD)

LOVE AND HATE: Filmmaker Ernest Dickerson on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Blu-ray)

LITTLE LAMBS: Actress Kathy Garver on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Blu-ray)

HING, HANG, HUNG: Artist Joe Coleman on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Blu-ray)

Theatrical Trailer (Blu-ray)

Triple-Layered UHD100 Disc

Optional English Subtitles

--Michelle Kisner