Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
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Background

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a truly compelling, haunting, and frightening classic masterpiece thriller-fantasy, and the only film ever directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton. The American gothic, Biblical tale of greed, innocence, seduction, sin and corruption was adapted for the screen by famed writer-author James Agee (and Laughton, but without screen credit). Although one of the greatest American films of all time, the imaginatively-chilling, experimental, sophisticated work was idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like expressionistic and strange, and it was both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release. Originally, it was a critical and commercial failure.

Robert Mitchum gave what some consider his finest performance in a precedent-setting, unpopular, and truly terrifying role as the sleepy-eyed, diabolical, dark-souled, self-appointed serial killer/Preacher with psychotic, murderous tendencies while in pursuit of $10,000 in cash. Lillian Gish played his opposite - a saintly good woman who provided refuge for the victimized children.

The disturbing, complex 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, WV, where the West Virginia Penitentiary (also mentioned in the film) was located. Grubb lived in nearby Clarksburg as a young teenager.

[Robert Mitchum's role was inspired by the real-life character of Harry Powers, known nationally as "the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell" (outside of Clarksburg) and West Virginia's most famous mass murderer, who was hanged on March 18, 1932, at the West Virginia Penitentiary. Powers was convicted of killing Asta B. Eicher, a widow, along with her three children, and another widow, Dorothy Lemke of Massachusetts in the early 1930s. He may also have killed a traveling salesman. The menacing figure of The Preacher inspired such characters as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) in Phantasm (1979) and (especially) Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) who similarly stalk their young prey.]

In addition, the visual-striking black-white photography of Stanley Cortez (who also shot Welles' black and white The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)) and the evocative musical score of Walter Schumann (mixing hymns, children's songs, and orchestral music) are exceptional. However, the film was not nominated for a single Academy Award, in a year when the short romantic drama Marty (1955) unaccountably won the Best Picture Oscar.

The film's slogan on a major poster proclaimed: "The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife. BUT ABOVE ALL...THE SUSPENSE!" The image showed actor Mitchum hugging a distressed Shelley Winters, with the L-O-V-E tattooed hand embracing her back, and the H-A-T-E tattooed hand grasping a knife.

[Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) referenced the love/hate, left and right hand theme, when Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) explained the love/hate dichotomy. In The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), LOVE and HATE were tattooed on Eddie's (Meat Loaf) knuckles, and in The Blues Brothers (1980), the two brothers (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) have their names tattooed on their knuckles. In The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare", the menacing Sideshow Bob (voice of Kelsey Grammer) had similar tattoos on each set of knuckles as well - but since the characters in the cartoon show had only three fingers and a thumb, the tattoos were humorously "LUV" and "HAT" - (with a bar over the A).]

The stylistic film, shot in only thirty-six days - an adult story with children as major characters, was extremely unusual and unpopular for its time for other reasons. It was black and white (when color was en vogue), shown in standard ratio (when theaters were showing Cinemascope wide-screen films), and it daringly portrayed a perverted, pedophile Preacher as the main protagonist - a villainous, obsessive, homicidal, and misogynous character with repressed sexuality and violence.

The high-contrast, melodramatic-horror film with macabre humor deliberately pays tribute to its silent film heritage, and to pioneering director D. W. Griffith in its style (the use of stark, expressionistic black and white cinematography, archaic camera devices such as iris down) and in its casting of Griffith's principal protegé/silent star, the legendary Lillian Gish (in her first film since Portrait of Jennie (1948)). Told with inventive, stylized, timeless and dark film noirish images, symbolism and visual poetry, it blends both a pastoral setting with dream-like creatures, fanatical characters, imperiled children during a river journey, a wicked guardian/adult, and salvation and redemption in the form of a old farm woman, 'fairy godmother' rather than a saintly Bible-totin' Preacher. In Laughton's words, it was "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale."

From its start, the film is designed to have the special feeling of a child's nightmare, including the difficult keeping of a secret, and a magical journey to safety - all told from a child's point of view. It also accentuates the contrasting, elemental dualities within the film: heaven and earth (or under-the-earth), male and female, light and dark, good and evil, knowingness and innocence, and other polarizations including equating the Preacher with the devil.

The Story

The credits play over a starry night sky (heaven), after which a plain, Bible-fearing farm woman named Rachel (Lillian Gish), dressed in a plain dress with shoulder shawl, magically materializes over the star-filled night background. To her five disembodied foster children around her and suspended in the heavens, she tells a Bible story about false prophets ("ravening wolves") in sheep's clothing, while a chorus sings behind her, "Dream, Little One, Dream":

Now, you remember children how I told you last Sunday about the good Lord going up into the mountain and talking to the people. And how he said, 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.' And how he said that King Solomon in all his glory was not as beautiful as the lilies of the field. And I know you won't forget, 'Judge not lest you be judged,' because I explained that to you. And then the good Lord went on to say, 'Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.'

The camera then moves plunges downward to earth to the film's general locale - the Ohio River Valley. The farm landscape is first shown in aerial helicopter shots or from a God's eye-view. There is a wooded area near the banks of a winding river. Children are playing hide-and-seek outside a rural house. Suddenly, one of the children discovers the legs of the corpse of a murdered woman inside a basement entrance, and the other children gather around.

The Bible story's lesson continues as the camera pulls back to another high-angle view, recoiling from the murder:

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.

The camera then tracks after an open touring Essex car [stolen], a Model T driven down a country road by a sinister, crazed, malevolent, black-cloaked, wide-brimmed and hatted 'Preacher' Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), one of the 'false prophets.' In a chilling, perversely evil and memorable monologue to the Lord, the killer-evangelist with borderline sanity, glances heavenward and delivers an insane prayer. He complains that he is "tired" of ridding the world of tempting females [one being the dead body just discovered]. As he drives by a cemetery, he reveals that he is a serial killer who receives divine inspirations to first marry, and then murder and rob women (usually rich lonely widows who do not see the menacing perversity in him):

Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. (He tips his hat.) You say the word, Lord, I'm on my way...You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killin's. Yore Book is full of killin's. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.

In the next scene, the avenging 'preacher' sits in a burlesque strip show with a stripper in action on stage. He stares with hate in his eyes at the sinful dancer, despising the sexy woman because she arouses his carnal instincts. His left hand, tattooed with the letters "H-A-T-E" on his four fingers, clenches and then reaches in his coat pocket to grab his concealed switchblade knife. As his libido is aroused, the flick-knife spontaneously opens - a sexual phallic symbol - violently and orgasmically ripping out the pocket as he thinks what he might do to the stripper (he would literally open her up with his 'knife') to punish her for tempting him to lustful sin. But then the sexually-repressed Preacher reconsiders:

There are too many of them. Can't kill the world.

Suddenly, a long arm of the law grabs him on the shoulder and apprehends him - the hand belongs to a policeman, and with a scene wipe left, 'Preacher' Harry Powell is sentenced before a judge to thirty days in the Moundsville, West Virginia Penitentiary for stealing an auto. The judge is disbelieving: "A man of God? Harry Powell."

Another aerial view, the second overhead shot in the film, shows it is rural West Virginia during the height of the Depression in the 1930s. On a flowery lawn in the small riverside town of Cresap's Landing on the Ohio River [a Mark Twain-like environment], a young nine-year old boy John (Billy Chapin) is playing happily with his little sister four-year old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and her doll named Miss Jenny when he sees a car speeding down the road. He cries: "Daddy," and jumps up to meet his father Ben Harper (Peter Graves). He stops suddenly when he sees his agitated father climb out of the car, bleeding from a bullet wound in the shoulder. He is also holding a gun in one hand and a wad of money in the other. [Harper has robbed a bank of ten thousand dollars to feed his family during hard times, but in his escape killed two people and was wounded.]

As police sirens approach closer from the distance, Ben is desperate to conceal the money. He thinks of places to hide his stolen money, almost $10,000: "The rock in the smokehouse, no, the bricks in the grape arbor, no, no, they'll dig for it. Sure. That's the place." He picks a place no one will guess. [Offscreen, the money is stashed inside the body of Pearl's doll.] Then, because he believes that his wife doesn't have "common sense" and won't keep secret the hiding place of the money, he entrusts the knowledge to John. He also has his son swear or promise to be an adult guardian - to take care of and protect his sister, and look after the money:

Harper: First, swear you'll take care of little Pearl, guard her with your life, boy. Then, swear you won't never tell where the money's hid, not even your Mom.
John: Yes, Dad.
Harper: Do you understand?
John: Not even her?
Harper: You got common sense. She ain't. When you grow up, that money will belong to you. Now, stand up straight, look me in the eye. Raise your right hand, now swear. 'I'll guard Pearl with my life,'...'And I won't never tell about the money.'...You Pearl, you swear too. (Pearl nods.)

Two police cars roar into the yard and four policeman cautiously approach, taking Ben Harper's gun away, knocking him to the ground, and handcuffing his hands behind his back. His young son winces and clutches his stomach in pain as he watches them arrest his father. [When his evil stepfather is arrested in the film's climax, he reacts similarly with the empathic gesture.] John's mother Willa (Shelley Winters) comes outside, takes Pearl into her arms, and watches as her husband is driven away after his arrest. After a trial, Harper is sentenced to death by hanging for having killed two people in the bank robbery, but the money is never recovered.

Harper and Powell become prison cellmates in the Moundsville Penitentiary, and during the last weeks of Ben's life before his execution, the deranged Preacher Powell (who is serving a shorter sentence of thirty days for car theft) listens to Harper's mumblings and dreams, hanging over the top bunk in the cell. He tries to coax, wheedle, and cajole Harper's unconscious to reveal the hiding place of his robbery money. Ben isn't really asleep and slugs Powell in the face, tumbling him out of bed. Harper stoically refuses to tell him its location even after continual badgering. Powell has heard Harper quoting Scripture, hinting at a clue: "And a little child shall lead them." Harper explains his motives for robbing the bank during the hard times of the Depression - to keep his children from being hungry and homeless:

I got tired of seein' children roamin' the woodlands without food. Children roamin' the highways in this here Depression. Children sleepin' in old abandoned car bodies and junk heaps. And I promised myself I'd never see the day when my young-uns would want.

The smooth-talking, self-ordained 'Preacher' is a pretender. He uses the scriptures for his own ends, representing the 'hate' that he preaches against. With divine assistance, he smuggled his knife into the prison without the guards knowing:

The Lord blinded mine enemies when they brought me in this evil place...I come not with peace, but with a sword...This sword has served me through many an evil time.

The itinerant preacher tries to convince Harper to reveal where the missing money is located so that he can build a tabernacle. Recognizing that the preacher is not a man of God, Harper wants to know what strange religion the preacher professes, and is told:

Harper: What religion do you profess, Preacher?
Powell: The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.
Harper: I'll bet.
Powell: Salvation is a last minute business, boy...If you's to let that money serve the Lord's purpose, He might feel kindly turned towards ya...Now don't you think the Lord might change his mind if you was to... (Harper falls asleep.)

When Harper is hanged (offscreen) in an abbreviated sequence, taking the secret of the money's location to his death ("he never broke...he took the secret with him"), Powell gives thanks to his Lord delivering his prayer as he holds his switchblade between his hands. He reveals that his right hand's fingers are tattooed with the letters: "L-O-V-E." He looks to the heavens from a window of the prison while planning his next maniacal, obsessional act - another serial killing:

Lord, you sure knowed what You was doin' when You put me in this very cell at this very time. A man with $10,000 hid somewhere and a widow in the makin'.

As a bell tolls following the hanging of Harper - a family man, Bart (uncredited Paul Bryar) the guard-executioner is followed from the prison to his domestic home, where he looks in fondly on his two peacefully-asleep children and then washes his hands clean. The scene cuts to a school playground, where John and Pearl are ostracized and teased by classmates for what their father did. The children sing a song called "Hing, Hang, Hung (See What the Hangman Done)" and draw a stick figure picture to mock their father's hanging. John and Pearl have successfully kept their father's secret regarding the money. Their young widowed mother works at the local Spoon's Ice Cream Parlor.

On a number of occasions in the depressed rural town of Cresap's Landing, Willa is advised by busybody, small-minded, gossipy and garrulous, match-making employer Mrs. Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) to find a husband:

No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two...It ain't a question of want it or not want it. You're no spring chicken. You're a grown woman with two little young-uns. It's a man you need in the house, Willa Harper.

Ominously with a slanted camera angle, a train approaches the small town - carrying Powell who has been released from prison and is in malevolent pursuit of the money, Harper's children - and Harper's widow.

On a moonlit night in their bedroom (with strange angles and shadows), John and Pearl are getting ready for bed when Pearl asks for a bedtime story. John relates a story about a rich king who had a son and daughter, living in a castle in Africa. One day, the king was taken away by bad men, but before he was taken off, he told his son to kill anyone who tried to steal his gold while he was gone.

And before long, the bad men came back and...

Just then, for a frightening moment (strikingly portrayed from John's point of view or perspective), a huge, terrifying black shadow of the head of the 'Preacher' covers John on the wall of the children's bedroom. Pearl gasps and points in fear. Looking out the window, John sees a preacher dressed all in black standing by the streetlight in front of their house. The preacher slowly strolls away, seductively singing a modified version of his signature tune (and the film's ironic refrain), the hymn - "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms": "Leaning, leaning..."


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