not in our stars, but in ourselves
The Night of the Hunter was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Audiences in 1955 were completely unresponsive to his indelible blend of Southern Gothic, film noir, Expressionism, Grimm’s fairy tale, and good battling evil – and it flopped. Rather than pick himself up and try again, he stuck with acting, and died before his lone directorial effort received the universal acclaim it enjoys now. It’s a shame, but it’s not hard to see why postwar audiences didn’t want to remind themselves of the murk and the gloom they believed they’d conquered. It’s ludicrous – but it’s not hard to understand.
In the 1930s in West Virginia, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a serial killer who thinks of himself (and advertises himself) as a preacher. He targets widows – he’s killed six to twelve so far, apparently hazy on the actual number – with a small nest egg, woos them, marries them, murders them, and takes the money. As he drives along a bumpy, rural road, he thanks the Lord for letting him do the work he so enjoys, and wonders who will be next. He goes to a burlesque hall, debating with himself whether to slash the throats of the miserable sinners sitting there with him, he’s arrested for having stolen the car. His punishment isn’t all that long – thirty days – but it’s long enough for him to settle on his next victim. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has committed murder and theft, to the tune of $10,000. He urges his son, John (Billy Chapin), to hide the money and not tell his mother. John swears, and his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), hides the money in her rag doll. When Ben is arrested and sentenced to death by hanging, he awaits his execution with his new cellmate: Powell. Ben talks enough in his sleep for Powell to figure that there’s a whole bundle of money back at the Harper home, and that the kids know where it is. After Ben is executed and Powell is freed, the predatory preacher heads straight for the Harper family. Newly widowed Willa (Shelley Winters) is grateful to meet this charming man who knew her husband in his last moments, and it takes almost no work for Powell to woo and wed her. Pearl trusts and loves her new stepfather, but John sees through him – especially because Powell keeps asking about the money. It’s too late, though: Powell slits her throat and drives her car, with her body in it, into the Ohio River. He’s now the children’s only legal guardian – and John realizes they have to get out of there quick, especially when Pearl reveals that the money is in her doll. The Harper kids jump in a skiff and let the river take them where it will. They end up on a riverbank outside the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). She’s just about the best possible person for them to find, since she takes in stray children and provides them with the kind of love, support, and protection they so desperately need. Powell finds the Harpers before long – but Miz Cooper isn’t fooled by his pious facade and smarmy demeanor. For all his vague platitudes, she can (and does) counter with a memorized Bible verse, and she stays up all night to defend her children. When Powell attempts to break in that night, she shoots him, calls the police, and has him arrested – and then tried and executed.
The film is harrowing in the way that cautionary “fairy tales” from Central Europe tend to be harrowing: these are two defenseless children trying to escape and survive the most wicked of all stepparents. It relies on nightmare logic in the way that film noir classically relies on it: the protagonist is an Everyman (an Everyboy, in this case) who’s thrown into Hell (or, in John’s case, upon whom Satan himself comes to prey). It relies on purely cinematic imagery in the manner of Expressionist films from Weimar-era Germany: all deep, menacing shadows and stark, angular houses. (And of course, Expressionism was a major influence on film noir as well.) It relies on the sheer strangeness of the American South and its embrace of evangelical preaching – without, perhaps, a more nuanced understanding or appreciation of the greater themes contained within the Bible. In short, this movie is doing a hell of a lot. It wears all these influences prominently, almost proudly out of step with the self-congratulatory 1950s psyche so prevalent in most other films of the era.
In processing this, it’s hard to move beyond just how visually striking it is – as striking as any silent film, with some extraordinarily effective uses of sound design. Among the indelible images are the opening view of the night sky, on which Gish’s face (and then those of her adopted children) is superimposed – imagery without which Eraserhead might not have existed; the scene of Powell’s previous murder, which begins with children singing and playing in a field (not unlike the beginning of M, in which children chant about “the man in black” who’s going to come get them all); the claustrophobic, peaked bedroom – almost like some sort of church steeple – where poor Willa meets her death; the famous and hauntingly beautiful shot of Willa in the car in the river, her hair undulating along with some aquatic grasses in the river currents; the children’s aimless drift down the Ohio, seemingly watched over by small animals (mostly prey, like John and Pearl themselves); Powell silhouetted against the rising sun as he lazily rides his horse, searching for the children, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in his big booming voice (a musical cue that, like the whistled “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in M again, takes on a terribly foreboding air the more he sings it); and the starkness of Miz Cooper, all in shadow, sitting still in her rocking chair while she holds tight to her rifle, well aware that the wolf who wants to steal her two little lambs is outside watching her every move.
There is more to it than the audiovisual aspect, indispensable as that is. The Night of the Hunter engages quite frankly with a number of difficult themes, enumerated above, but I think the theme of good versus evil is the most timely – for the specific way Laughton and screenwriter James Agee have framed it. David Ehrenstein writes in his essay for the Criterion Collection:
Most important of all, of course, are the portrayals of Mitchum and Gish. The screen had never seen the likes of villainy as embodied by Mitchum (not until Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet). As for Gish, she radiates from the screen here in a manner even D. W. Griffith was unable to capture.
It’s a perfect match—the “false prophet” Mitchum versus the true Christian. As they face-off in the film’s unforgettable climax, the message of The Night of the Hunter comes through with crystal clarity. Evil is abroad in the world. Children must bear its brunt, but, as the film’s heroine says, “They abide, they endure.”
Exactly right: like the Devil, Powell can’t even quote a passage from the Bible. He claims that his religion is one that he and the Lord “worked out betwixt us” – a convenient excuse for a psychopath who hides behind piety in order to prey on the vulnerable. I think we have a few like that currently running for president. He’s a stark contrast to Miz Cooper, who recites and reads aloud from the Bible, and who tells her lost little lambs at the start of the film:
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. 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.”
She’s not a pushover, as proven by her nighttime vigil on the porch with her rifle, but everything she does is done out of love. Everything Powell does is done out of hate. His hand tattoos may help him tell an invented parable to bewitched parishioners – but they also explain the two opposing forces at work here. As Miz Cooper puts it: “I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for somethin’ in this old world, and I know it, too.” Film noir doesn’t always end with this kind of happy ending; Grimm’s fairy tales don’t always; horror films almost never do; but true Christians do believe that goodness and innocence are ultimately rewarded. Let’s hope so.