Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Meanwhile, that same night, a drunken Uncle Birdie speaks to a framed picture of his deceased wife Bess, confiding in her about what he witnessed at the bottom of the river. The sight of Willa's submerged body in the water has sped up his paranoid descent into a drunken stupor - as he decides to not tell anyone for fear of being accused of murder:

They'll think it was me. They'll think it was poor old Uncle Birdie. Ah, if you could have seen it, Bess, down there in the deep place, with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water, and that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth. You're the only human mortal I can go to, Bess. If I go to the law, they'll hang it on me. Sweet heavens, save poor old Uncle Birdie.

While depriving Pearl and John of their bounteous supper spread out on the table, Powell continues his single-minded, possessed pursuit of the money. To intimidate and harrass them, he displays his "cute" switchblade knife that he uses on "meddlers" such as John. Curious, Pearl is attracted to it - a blatant but dangerous sexual symbol - and reaches for it as he snaps:

No, no. No little lamb. Don't touch it. Now, don't touch my knife. That makes me mad. That makes me very, very mad.

He asks her: "Now just tell me, where's the money hid?" but John has convinced Pearl to keep silent - and she refuses ("But I swore. I promised John I wouldn't tell"), and that infuriates Powell, who bangs his hand on the table to accentuate each raging word, causing tears to well up in Pearl's eyes as she starts to cry:

John doesn't matter! Can't I get that through your head, you poor silly, disgusting little wretch! There now, you made me lose my temper. I'm sorry. I'm real sorry. Now just tell me, where's it hid, honey?

Hoping to get a chance to escape, John agrees to tell, and explains that the money is buried in the cellar beneath a stone in the floor. Powell forces the children to lead him down the fruit cellar stairs while he carries a candle to light their way. Powell discovers the floor is concrete and that John has deceived him. Pearl concurs: "John made a sin. John told a lie." To punish his lie, Powell throws John over a barrel, preaching: "The liar is an abomination before mine eyes." He takes out his switchblade knife, and prepares to cut John's throat. Sobbing and terrified, little Pearl cannot hold out with John in danger, and screams out the secret:

It's in my doll. It's in my doll!

Powell looks upward, sits back, laughs out loud and smiles: "The doll. Why sure. The last place anyone would think to look." Seizing the opportunity, John snuffs out the candle with one hand, and with his other hand knocks loose a shelf board that supports heavy preserve jars above Powell's head. The home-canned jars tumble onto the Preacher's head from the collapsing shelves. Desperate to evade the Preacher, John grabs Pearl (who grabs her doll), and they run up the stairs to escape - John knows that they will be murdered once their homicidal step-father gets the money.

Furious with them, the Preacher chases after them, first tripping on a jar, falling, recovering, and then lunging with his hands outstretched and reaching toward them (like Frankenstein's monster). At the top of the treacherous stairs, John slams the cellar door on his fingers. Powell lets go a low gutteral noise, and then is locked in. Angered, he calls out to them: "Open that door, you spawn of the devil's own strumpet!"

The children run down to the river for refuge at Uncle Birdie's barge, but they find the incapacitated old man helplessly falling onto the floor and rolling about in a drunken stupor. Unable to revive him after screaming: "Please wake up!", John announces one more way to escape: "There's still the river." They dash to the river where they find their father's old skiff. [Note: It is significant that they find a means of escape in their father's boat.] They wade toward the boat in the mud just as Powell appears as a black silhouette coming after them and calling out: "Chill-dren."

Like a figure in a nightmare or a wild beast, he comes crashing down to the river bank through the underbrush, his knife held high and slashing at the growth like a machete, as they shove off from the shore in the rowboat. At the last moment, he wades out and lunges toward them, but slips waist-deep into the mudhole as the skiff slides into the current just out of his reach. With animalistic rage, he moans in anger and frustration with a blood-curdling sound - screaming like an inhuman, stranded monstrous beast as they float away from him.

The film magically calms as the exhausted children begin their arduous journey on the river - remote figures against an enchanting, ethereal night backdrop. They fall asleep under a fantastic sky filled by the light of twinkling stars. As if from some dark enchanted, lyrical fairy tale, the benevolent creatures of the night, dominating the foreground shoreline, look after the strange figures as they drift by. Their progress is observed by natural wildlife - an unseen spider with a beautifully-designed spider's web and a croaking frog, both predators of flies. As they float down the river, Pearl sings (dubbed by Betty Benson): "Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly" with dreamy lyrics - an allegorical lullaby signifying the death of Pearl's mother - making her an orphan and a fly that will be hunted:

Once upon a time there was a pretty fly
He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly
But one day she flew away, flew away
She had two pretty children
But one night these two pretty children
Flew away, flew away
Into the sky, into the moon

Back in Cresap's Landing, Powell covers his tracks by sending a written post-card a week later back to the Spoons to explain his (and the children's) whereabouts after an abrupt departure without a goodbye:

Dear Walt and Icey, I bet you've been worried and gave us up for lost. Took the kids down here with me for a visit to my sister Elsie's farm. Thought a little change of scenery would do us all a world of good after so much trouble and heartache. At least the kids will get a-plenty of good home cookin'. Your devoted Harry Powell.

An evil stepfather, Powell doggedly pursues - in fact, stalks - his step-children downriver while riding on a stolen white farm horse (Mr. Spoon haphazardly mentions a recent unsolved local crime - a "gypsy" must have stolen the horse after knifing its farmer-owner).

One day, John docks the boat and they beg for food, and are given one raw potato each by an old woman (Edna Holland). In the next few days, they pass by other creatures of nature. Many are wildlife that symbolize their vulnerability: an owl, a slow-moving turtle, two jackrabbits, and bleating sheep. They spend the night on land, taking refuge in a barn, and sleeping in the upper hayloft. As the moon rises, John wakes to the sound of dogs barking and distant singing of a familiar refrain:

Leaning, leaning!
Safe and secure from all alarms!
Leaning, leaning!
Leaning on the everlasting arms!

Backlit and silhouetted against the horizon on a ridge like a pop-up storybook image come to life - one of the film's most terrifying and memorable images (shot with a deep-focus background), John spots Powell approaching on horseback. The Preacher relentlessly pursues them on the stolen horse. The boy mutters aloud, knowing that the Preacher will never stop hunting them: "Don't he never sleep?" He wakes Pearl and they race back to the boat and the safety of the river. The sun rises and their boat drifts ashore. [Note: The children are discovered by the side of the river in the boat, similar to the way young baby Moses was rescued by the Pharaoh's daughter in the Biblical story told by Rachel a few nights later.]

The exhausted, dirty and hungry children are awakened by the stern voice of a kindly, warmhearted, and benevolent old matriarchal widow, Mrs. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). Strong-willed, she towers over them and briskly orders the two river orphans out of the boat and up to her farmhouse: "You two youngsters get up here to me this instant. Get on up to my house. Mind me now. I'll get me a switch!" At her farm, she already takes care of three lost and cast-off children (Clary (Mary Ellen Clemons), Mary (Cheryl Callaway), and Ruby (Gloria Castillo)) made homeless by the Depression. Although John and Pearl are "two more mouths to feed," she immediately takes them in and scrubs them clean in an outdoor tub. John is as distrustful of her and can't talk of his past (as he is of Powell), but Pearl immediately likes Rachel.

The Bible-fearing, verse-spouting, sturdy, gray-haired old lady tells the town's grocery storeowner (James Stone) of his worries about unwanted children put up for adoption, when she sees a young girl being romanced:

Women is fools. All of 'em. Looky there. She'll be losin' her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not, I'll be saddled with the consequences.

She also tells him about her dedicated care and provision of sanctuary for the houseful of orphans ("peeps"), likening herself to a 'strong tree with branches for many birds':

I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for somethin' in this old world, and I know it, too.

In the evenings, Rachel tells her big, makeshift family Bible stories (including the very timely Pharaoh story about the adoption of boy baby Moses ("King of men") in the bulrushes who was saved by the Pharaoh's daughter - her father was killing children). This scriptural story is something that intrigues and mesmerizes John, and he slowly warms to her motherly charm and heals his unhappiness.

Regularly on Thursday evenings, the oldest child on the farm, the blossoming, slightly rebellious and nubile Ruby, (Rachel's "bothersome girl"), is given permission to go to town - presumably for sewing lessons, but actually she sneaks around and flirts in town with her boyfriend (Michael Chapin, Billy's older brother). During her latest visit in the local drugstore, after being bribed with ice cream, the purchase of a movie magazine, and being told that she is pretty, Ruby reveals her generous and charming benefactor. It is the Preacher/stranger, who is told that there are "two new ones" out at the farm, named Pearl and John, who play with a doll. When the Preacher abruptly leaves with the information he needs, she whispers in his ear as he exits the store: "Did you ever see such pretty eyes in all your born days?" - an inquiry that causes the Preacher's switchblade to snap open in his pocket. Ruby watches him go, sensing: "I've been bad."

Later that evening, guilt-ridden Ruby confesses to Rachel that she has been lying about her whereabouts ("I never been to sewing lessons all them times...I been out with men"). She also admits that she spoke to a nice "gentleman" in the drugstore and he inquired about John and Pearl. With Ruby in tears, Rachel comforts her and then absolves her. Rachel expresses her tender concern that Ruby grow up properly guided and protected from making regretful mistakes and succumbing to flirtation, until she is more mature:

You were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how. We all need love, Ruby. I lost the love of my son. I found it with you all. You're going to grow up to be a strong, fine woman and I'm gonna see to it that you do.

The next day, Powell comes riding up to Mrs. Cooper's front gate. Just outside the barn, Ruby recognizes him immediately, drops and symbolically smashes the two eggs she is carrying, and runs to alert Miss Cooper ("The man, the man!"). He is claiming that he is looking to retrieve and reclaim his lost children, Pearl and John. He dramatically overplays his search for them:

Oh, them poor little lambs. To think I never hoped to see them again in this world. No, dear Madam, if you was to know what a crown of thorns I've borne in my search for them stray chicks.

While Pearl and John are being summoned by Ruby, he begins his tale of "LOVE" and "HATE," but she cuts him off. She is immediately suspicious and instantly sees through him, when he tells her that the children were in Cincinnati (where his sinful runaway wife had dragged them), down the river. She knows that they floated downstream: "Right funny ain't it how they rowed all the way up river in a ten-foot john boat?" When the children appear, Pearl runs to hug him, but John turns cold toward his 'father.' When she asks: "What's wrong, John?", he tells her about the reality of his psychotic step-father:

John: He ain't my Dad!
Rachel: No, and he ain't no Preacher, neither.

Powell tries to snatch Pearl's doll on the ground, but John grabs it first and dives under the front porch. Powell brandishes his deadly switchblade and crawls in after the boy. When he feels something tapping him on the back, he looks up into the shiny barrel of Rachel's shotgun, as she orders him off the property ("Just march yourself yonder to your horse, mister"). As he retreats to his horse and rides off, chased away by the muzzle of her shotgun, he defiantly curses:

All right, but you haven't heard the last of Harry Powell yet. The Lord God Jehovah will guide my hand in vengeance. Devil! You whores of Babylon! I'll be back, when it's dark.

That night as promised, in a classic confrontational scene between the phony, blaspheming 'false prophet' and a true, pure and strong Christian, he lurks just inside the farm gate to lay siege, sitting on a tree stump and singing his rendition of the hymn with the words: "Leaning, leaning..." while waiting for her to fall asleep. In silhouette, Rachel appears like the portrait of Whistler's Mother, sitting in a rocking chair on the screened-in porch with the shotgun across her lap to battle against him with her own vigil. Rachel counters his song, defiantly and harmoniously singing the authentic version of the Protestant religious hymn with a spiritual reference to Jesus: "Lean on Jesus, lean on Jesus," filling in the words that he has chosen to leave out in a simultaneous duet. [She wisely knows that the dual forces of 'good' and 'evil' that are tattooed on his knuckles are from the hands of one demonic power.] Suddenly, the preacher vanishes.

Rachel summons the children to gather in the kitchen. As the camera views an owl sweeping down and attacking a defenseless rabbit (offscreen), Rachel observes, thinking of small creatures and children as well, in a famous line:

It's a hard world for little things.

In the kitchen, she lines the five children up as she marches back and forth in front of them with her shotgun, warily watching out for the return of the Preacher. In the meantime, she tells them the Bible story of the Massacre of the Innocents - King Herod's massacre of babies to kill the promised Messiah.

Now, there was this sneakin', no-account, ornery King Herod, and when he heard tell of little Jesus growin' up, he figured: 'Well, shoot, there won't be no room for the both of us. I'll just nip this in the bud.' But he wasn't sure which of all them babies in the land was King Jesus. So that cruel old King Herod figured, if he was to kill all the babies in the land, he'd be sure and get little Jesus. And when little King Jesus' Ma and Pa heard about this plan, what do you reckon they went and done?...Little King Jesus' Ma and Pa saddled a mule and they rode all the way down into Egypt land....Them olden days. Them hard, hard times.

When the clock strikes 3 o'clock AM, she sees Powell's shadow inside the house in the living room, and his voice quering: "Figured I was gone, huh?" she sends the children to safety upstairs, cocks her shotgun, aims, and asks: "What do you want?" Powell's voice is heard in the darkness:

I want them kids!

When she warns that she will shoot after counting to three, he pops up right in front of her - due to being scared and/or scratched by a screeching cat - heard but not seen. [Note: Some societies, such as the Egyptians, long believed that felines had supernatural powers and could ward off evil spirts.] She blasts him with her shotgun, after which he runs out of the house, yelping, shrieking and howling like a madman and wounded animal. Apparently, he is not badly hurt, but the brutal coward has actually been wounded in the shoulder (an identical wound suffered by Ben Harper). Then, she phones the State Troopers to come and arrest the Preacher cornered in her barn, telling an officer: "I've got something trapped in my barn."

In the kitchen the next morning, she tells John that children are mankind at its strongest:

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.

Sirens sound and the police arrive, dragging out wounded Harry Powell and arresting him for the murder of Willa Harper - the film's second arrest scene. As they throw him to the ground and start to handcuff him (in exactly the same staged or choreographed way Ben is arrested), John remembers the traumatic last time he saw his natural, 'good' father when he was arrested, and he reacts similarly to the arrest of his 'evil' stepfather. He clutches his stomach in pain, crying out: "Don't! Don't. Don't!" Then, he grabs Pearl's doll from her hands, rushes over to the policeman, and pummels and flogs the back of his captured and arrested father over and over again with the limp female doll. John screams out as the hidden/stolen money flies out of the ripped doll's body. [Note: The arrest of Powell coincides with the last female body to be split open.] He has discovered that money isn't important enough anymore to justify their suffering:

Here! Here! Take it back, Dad. Take it back. I don't want it, Dad. It's too much. Here! Here!

John collapses, and is gently carried inside by Rachel.

A trial scene follows, attended by the Spoons and other neighbors who have come to town for the event. They both shout: "Lynch him. Lynch him. Bluebeard. Twenty-five wives, and he killed every last one of 'em. The people of Marshall County... " The experience on the witness stand is too much for John - he looks down and is unable (or refuses) to testify and point out his mother's killer. But Powell is still sentenced to be hanged for all the women he has killed.

Rachel takes the children to the nearby Empire Eats Restaurant for a meal, where they witness the formation of a lynch mob led by the Spoons. Icey Spoon points at Pearl and John and cries out: "Them's her orphans!"; she claims that the children - "Them poor little lambs" - are the ones that Powell sinned against and wronged. To protect her wards from the temptations and violence of the physical world, Rachel steers her brood/flock of young children clear of the crazed, torch-wielding mob (Mrs. Spoon carries an axe) by exiting through the back door. She marches them through town toward the bus depot like a mother quail with her young scurrying behind her.

Rachel finds Ruby outside the jail, where the young girl has gone because she mistakenly thinks the mob is going to free the Preacher - and she wants to help. She is mistakenly on the side of the Preacher and protests against Rachel: "I love him. You think he's like them others. You were so mad, you shot him." The children follow after Rachel in single-file, Mother Goose-style, down the street. Powell is led out the side door of the jail by the police, to be taken away in a car to the penitentiary for his execution.

Now that it is Christmas time, in the safety and security of Rachel's matriarchal care, the children present gifts of homemade potholders to her in the spirit of the holiday. Having no money or gift, but wishing to give something to Rachel, John sneaks into the living room, wraps an apple in a lace doily serviette, and gives it to her. She admires it and thanks him:

That's the richest gift a body could have.

Ruby is given a pretty brooch by Rachel - it is an object that acknowledges her need to feel pretty and adult. Stirring something on the stove, Rachel delivers one of the film's final lines about how the children are now safe:

Lord, save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide...

John admires his present from Rachel, a new watch, delighted with something he had always wanted. "This watch is the nicest watch I ever had," he beams, discovering what it means to be happy and safe in a world he has experienced without stable and protective fathers. The film closes on Rachel's triumphant, reassuring final words as she marvels about the orphaned, brutalized children who have reclaimed their innocence, after many nights of being hunted by a demon:

They abide and they endure.

Previous Page