“…and a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6
Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. It could be accurately described as any number of things – a genteel folk drama, a haunting horror story, a grotesque fairy tale or a fable about religion, sex and greed. The film contains those and other seemingly incongruous elements, yet somehow succeeds in blending them together in a unique and utterly beguiling package. It’s hard to nail down – when I first sat down to watch it a few years ago, I was expecting a simplistic, low-rent, forgettable horror film. I was surprised to find instead a multi-layered and haunting piece of art, with ambitions beyond its B-movie premise. 1955 audiences, unprepared for its thematic dissonance, were left all sewn up in horse pies. Certainly the curious theatrical poster didn’t even begin to hint at what the film is really about, instead playing up the melodrama between a newly-married husband and wife. Unfortunately, its failure at the box office ensured that Laughton, a revered actor, never directed another movie.
But ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is really about only one thing– a terrifying wolf in sheep’s clothing. The self-anointed “Preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is one of the truly great and archetypal villains of the cinema – a predator who wends his way through the West Virginia countryside, carrying out his twisted gospel (or, in Powell’s silky words, “the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us”) of murdering widows and stealing their money. The film is based on the novel by Davis Grubb, who based his novel on the real-life case of Harry Powers, a serial killer who was hanged for murdering two women and three children in West Virginia in 1931. Powers was merely a con man who ensnared lonely women through magazine ads, but it was Grubb’s inspiration to give his central antagonist the shady persona of the Preacher.
After a heavenly introduction of sorts, the plot is quickly set into motion. Descending from a disapproving, God’s-eye view, we zero in on Reverend Harry Powell, speaking to his version of the Almighty after killing another widow and stealing her car. He is imprisoned for car theft, but he soon deduces that his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), has entrusted $10,000 of stolen money to his two young children, John and Pearl. Upon his release, and Ben’s hanging, Powell uses his snake-oil charm and pretended piousness to ingratiate himself with the dim townsfolk and weasel his way into the Harper home. Before long, he marries and cruelly murders the poor mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), and then terrorizes and pursues the children across the countryside, all-the-while singing a chilling rendition of the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’. When the exhausted children finally find refuge with a good Christian woman, Ms. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the stage is perfectly set for a showdown between L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E, personified by Cooper and Powell respectively.
For a 60-year-old film, I was surprised to find real substance and frankness to the script. There are plenty of subtexts and themes on display in ‘The Night of the Hunter’, but the great masterstroke of Laughton and his screenwriter, film critic James Agee, is to infuse the narrative with heavy religious overtones and symbolism throughout. The centerpiece of the film is a languorous riverboat sequence in which the drained and terrified children, having narrowly escaped Powell’s switchblade, drift down the Ohio River as various animals look on under a starry sky. Clearly intended to echo Moses’ journey, the sequence has a quiet beauty that allows the audience a brief reprieve for reflection before the chase picks up again.
The film also accurately depicts the daily religiosity of the South during the Depression era. The townsfolk all use a quasi-biblical speak that feels right at home, and one of the movie’s great treats is the dialogue, full of scripture quotations, Apple Pie wisdom and some genuine humor. One of the most compelling scenes is Powell’s demonstration of the age-old conflict between good and evil using his tattooed hands. It seems odd, in this day and age, to see a film place religion so squarely at the forefront of the proceedings, but by doing so, Laughton and Agee elevated the story from cheap exploitation into a more spiritual, mystical realm.
Another major theme, and one that I paid far more attention to now that I have kids of my own, is the innocence and resilience of children. For a while, John is the only one who sees right through Powell’s act – little Pearl is so young and impressionable that she almost warms to the Preacher’s charms. John demonstrates maturity, resolve and bravery for most of the film, but he does have limits. It is sad to watch him finally collapse at Powell’s feet, unable to shoulder the illicit burden any longer. And it is touching to watch him regain his faith in parental love through Ms. Cooper’s firm but loving care. Though it is indeed “a hard world for little things”, we are also reminded that children often “have more endurance than God is ever to grant [them] again.”
This raises another interesting point. From the moment Ben Harper asks John and Pearl to hide the money, we are given examples of adults who consistently let the children down in one way or another. In fact, with the exception of Ms. Cooper, every adult in the picture is either completely oblivious to Harry Powell’s true nature, or is too weak to do anything about it. Willa is so easily dominated that even after she figures out Harry’s game, she naively believes that a type of salvation will come to her by her husband’s murderous hand. Uncle Birdie, the boathouse keeper, discovers Willa’s body but shrinks from the implications, and passes out drunk just as John and Pearl need him the most. The gossipy Icey Spoon is all too happy to buy the Preacher’s charade, and just as happy to exploit the orphaned children in a fit of religious zeal following Powell’s trial. And although Ben Harper justifies his theft because of his kids, what good does it do them to have their father hanged? This is what makes Ms. Cooper’s presence so towering – she is the only adult with any real moorings or common sense. She embodies meekness, sacrifice, charity and righteous anger all at the same time. It is telling that when she sings the hymn along with the wraith-like Preacher, she includes the phrase ‘Leaning on Jesus’ (a phrase that is absent in Powell’s version).
When I recall this film in my mind’s eye, I first think of the haunting, beautiful imagery that is employed throughout. Charles Laughton and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, deliberately incorporated elements of German expressionism, with its angular design and its stylized use of shadows. There is the great shot of Powell on horseback, silhouetted against the approaching dawn, keeping pace with John and Pearl as his hymn echoes across the field. The most frightening scene to me is Willa Harper’s dream-like death scene, with Powell raising his switchblade in a bedroom that looks more like a chapel than anything else, followed by the haunting sight of Willa’s body at the bottom of the river. Of course, there is also the climactic nighttime standoff between Rachel Cooper and Harry Powell that uses light and shadow in ways that are integral in generating suspense. I also appreciated small things, like the use of the iris-in technique to focus on John and Pearl hiding in the cellar. I always respond to films where the direction is confident and deliberate, simply because if I sense there is substance and effort invested in a scene, or if I can tell there are layers to a composition, it focuses my attention (almost like reading and pondering scriptures). Here, Charles Laughton provides strategic, confident direction, and the result is a rich experience that rewards multiple viewings.
I can’t explain exactly why I return to ‘The Night of the Hunter’ now and then, but a big reason has to be Robert Mitchum’s syrupy, snaky characterization of Harry Powell, the titular Hunter. The Preacher is a twisted, sexually depraved, misogynistic monster who uses religion as a cover for doing wickedness. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but as I watched the film again, I couldn’t help but think of modern-day analogs like pedophile priests, or groups like ISIL and al Qaeda, who perform truly unspeakable acts in the name of a higher power (and who, incidentally, terrorize and victimize children). And make no mistake – Harry Powell is a very dynamic character. Whenever he is onscreen, the viewer can’t help but be enthralled by his charm and persuasiveness. He’s just plain fascinating to watch. His presence dominates the entire film, and is perhaps its most lasting legacy.
‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a brooding, strange and chilling film, but one that has grown on me over the years. I personally would not describe it as a horror movie – it’s more disturbing than scary, more gothic and subversive than outright frightening. It does show its age in a few places, and it has an abrupt ending that feels somehow too neat. But it has several things going for it – rich biblical themes, some genuine suspense, a surprisingly bold tone, stylish direction and above all, a villain for the ages. There’s something to it.