The Night of the Hunter

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“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”-Mathew, 7:15

The Night of the Hunter is a unique film. It is the only one to be directed by the legendary actor Charles Laughton, and it is the only one that I’ve encounter thus far that combines a thrilling suspense story with an insightful religious commentary. The combination of these two aspects, while impressive on their own, makes the film even more of a triumph. Laughton draws on many traditions, that of German Expressionism, film noir, and a Hitchcock style of suspense. It also has a very dreamlike feel and uses singing to great effect. Mix these all together and you have The Night of the Hunter.

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) just robbed a bank. With the cops bearing down on him, he tells his son John (Billy Chapin) wear he hid the money and also makes him promise to take care of his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). When he is arrested, he bunks next to Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He’s an interesting character, and when I say interesting character I mean despicable villain. He uses religion to get people to trust him. Luckily, Ben doesn’t. That doesn’t stop Powell from finding things out from him, however. He realizes he has a family and some money hidden away. After he gets out of prison, he sets off the find the family and the money. Not before killing Ben of course.

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When he comes into town, most everyone trusts him right away. All except for John. He realizes Powell is after the money and since he swore to his father to keep it a secret, he won’t tell him. What ensues is a battle of wills between them, with Powell most often having the upper hand because he has everyone on his side. He convert John and Pearl’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), to his “religion” and marries her. Everyone in town seems to follow his religion. Even Pearl likes him. Despite this, they manage to keep the secret from Powell for a good amount of time. Not forever, though, and they are forced to run away.

They steal a rowboat and float off down the river, while Powell pursues them on land. They are eventually taken in by old woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who looks after many children who are implied to be illegitimate. She is also deeply religious but uses her religion for good, looking after the children and teaching them right from wrong. When Powell turns up, she sees right through him. She turns out to be tougher than anyone probably would guess, keeping watch over the children with a shotgun throughout the night.

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The film has quite a bit of singing in it; I was very surprised by this. While the film is not a musical in its structure, it has almost as much singing as one. Most of them seem to be hymns or children’s songs, which makes sense given the two main themes of the film. Every time Powell shows up looking for the kids, he sings the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and it sounds very ominous. (Mitchum does his own singing as well; he has a beautiful voice.) Especially because he usually appears out of nowhere, thinking logically it should probably be impossible that he has found them already. There’s this one great scene where Powell is outside of Rachel’s house all throughout the night, singing. She’s inside, sitting in her rocking chair with a shotgun, and starts singing along. They both sing the hymn, but they sing it for different reasons. Powell is using it to threaten, and Rachel is using it to strengthen and protect.

This is one of the main themes of the film: how religion can be used  for good or evil. Laughton is concerned with showing the harm religion can do in the hands of someone like Powell. He uses it to frighten others and empower himself. If people do not go along with him, they are sinners. He is clearly one of the “false prophets” that is referred to in the opening narration. It is unclear to me to what extent he believes in the things he preaches; towards the beginning he professes his beliefs and prays when no one is around so I’m thinking that he is not a hypocrite. He’s sincerely evil. Rachel, however, uses her religion to help people, not to control them.

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This commentary on religion plays directly into the theme of trust. Laughton clearly shows the consequences of misplacing one’s faith in somebody corrupt. Willa trusts Powell completely, even after she hears him yelling at Pearl to tell him where the money is. She knows he’s looking for it, but still believes he’s a good person, even then. This misplaced trust puts her at the bottom of the river. One of the girls living with Rachel, Ruby (Gloria Castillo), believes Powell is “different” than all of the other  guys she normally hangs out with. She vacillates between running away after Powell and staying with Rachel.

There is one more prominent example. All through this, I was wondering why John didn’t just turn over the money. It seems like Powell would probably just leave them alone afterwards. He didn’t do it because his dad made him swear. I thought it was terrible of his father to have him swear to this, when as long as the money’s hidden it’s not going to do them any good anyway. More important, it seems to me, is John’s promise to protect his sister and in this case the two seem to be mutually exclusive. John eventually realizes after all the two of them have gone through that keeping his promise to his father about the money isn’t that important after all. He trusted his father and so didn’t question as to whether this was actually a good idea or not, but realizes in the end that he didn’t actually have all the answers.

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The film does employ many elements of German Expressionism. This was most apparent to me in the scene where Powell stabs Willa. Mitchum’s movements in that scene were bizarre and stiff, very reminiscent of German Expressionism. First he crosses over the window and holds his hand up to the light as if asking for guidance. It’s a very strange position. Then he stabs her in a sort of awkward position as well. The room’s design is very expressionist, with the angular ceiling reminding me of a church. Laughton also uses shadows to great effect; the most obvious example of this being when Powell first shows up and his shadow is cast on the wall of John and Pearl’s bedroom. We know it’s him because of the hat, and it’s pretty ominous.

I really liked this film. It kept me very on edge the whole time, because I never really knew when Powell was going to show up. The themes about religion and how it is used were fascinating to me, though one complaint I have with the film is that the message about children was a bit less clear to me. Hopefully on a rewatch I’ll be able to figure out what Laughton was going for there. Also there was some symbolism with the animals that I didn’t quite get either. Some of it was obvious and some of it wasn’t. However, these things do not take away from the film at all, they are just mildly confusing to me. The film is definitely a good one, with suspense, a great villain and a great hero, a dreamlike feel, interesting sets, and a great overall message.

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“It’s a hard world for little things.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

Ebert’s “Great Movies” review 
New York Times 1955 review
The Guardian 2011 review

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4 responses to “The Night of the Hunter

  1. I don’t have enough words for Mitchum’s performance here. You don’t see actors like him too often. The interesting thing about this movie is that it skirts the line of becoming laughably over the top,but due to very intentional direction and Mitchum’s gravity, it only becomes more chilling for those aspects.

    Don’t you think it’s a shame Laughton didn’t direct more films? He had such a distinctive vision.

    • Mitchum’s performance was fantastic, I agree. It lent a lot of credibility to the film. The whole film definitely could have gone way over the top but it didn’t. It becomes more believable because you’re (at least I was) viewing it from a child’s perspective when everything is more scary.
      Yes, I would be very interested to see more of his films, had he gotten the chance to make them! I would love to see what he could have done with other stories.

  2. Hi, Hunter:

    Charles Laughton holds and controls the reins of a wondrously executed nightmare.
    With Mitchum reveling in pious, smiling psychopath evil. Superb dialogue and even better scary and ominous shadows and silhouettes.

    Very well done critique!

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