The Night of the Hunter: An Enthralling 1950s Southern Gothic Masterpiece
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
One of the greatest actors living today, the reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis (the Mike Trout of cinema if you will), once cited actor Charles Laughton as an influence and inspiration. I have yet to see Laughton on screen, a prolific film (an Oscar winner for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII), television and theatre actor from the 1930s until his death in 1962; his last two film appearances were in Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) (Yeah, I’m not a Kubrick purist, do I even like movies?) and Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962).
However, whilst scrolling through the Criterion Channel as I do everyday, I saw Laughton’s name. But he wasn’t credited in the list of actors. Laughton directed the classic 1950s noir thriller The Night of the Hunter. Two years before he starred in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Laughton released his first and only effort behind the camera. Though at the time no one knew it, The Night of the Hunter was one of the best films in a decade full of legendary films. Critically and commercially derided upon its release in 1955 for some appalling reason I don’t know, The Night of the Hunter is right up there with every great 50s cinematic achievement including Hitchcock’s Vertigo, George Stevens’ Giant, and everything Billy Wilder released in that ten-year span (his journalist noir Ace in the Hole didn’t get any love in 1951).
Right in the middle of what is probably the grandest decade of cinema, Laughton snuck this little hour-and-half expressionist, Southern Gothic noir/thriller/horror masterpiece into theaters and was ridiculed for it. Though he died seven years later, who knows what other opportunities he would have received? What other scripts would have landed on this new auteur’s desk and said “hey, remember how you made The Night of the Hunter into something more than a simple, archetypal noir/crime thriller and instead gave us a grim and thrilling adventure fairytale mixing a handful of genres that can’t be replicated and still won’t be replicated by 2019? Also, the character in this script isn’t as iconic as Robert Mitchum’s maniacal Harry Powell, but I’m sure you can work with it.” That’s exactly how it would have gone, I am sure of it.
Maybe it’s better off Laughton was one and done. It’s hard to get through the sophomore expectation, especially if your first film is The Night of the Hunter. I mean my goodness I can’t praise this film enough. Maybe he knew it would get its due praise in time. I wish, at least, that he had some inkling of hope that his film would be praised someday. Surely anyone that saw how great Vertigo was in 1958 could see that Hunter is just as much a sight to behold. Fortunately, it did get its praise decades later and self-made “Reverend” Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, would become one of the most iconic, influential movie villains ever.
The night is dark in this film but the hunter is darker, disguising as a beacon of light in depression-era America. A light for the Lord, in fact. What does he hunt for? For women first, then money, and finally for children, but never for God. He roams the land “preaching the word of the Lord” with charm and charisma masking his diabolical deeds. I guess I can see why mid-century folks didn’t like this movie, but that’s not the point. His wicked introduction immediately puts a sour taste in your mouth. He talks to the Lord, believing that God shares the same hatred for women as he does. While attending a show he watches a girl dancing and clenches his fist with the word HATE written on it and opens his knife in his pocket, slicing a hole of hatred through his coat. This man is a murderer and I feel bad for whoever is going to cross his path the rest of the film. “There are too many of them,” he says looking at the sky. “I can’t kill a world.” This is where he gets arrested for stealing a car and it is in jail where he shares a cell with Ben Harper.
Harper is in jail for killing two men and robbing $10,000 for his children, refusing to let hunger and the injustices of the world impede their lives. That doesn’t turn out too well for old daddy Harper, as he only makes things worse for his family, setting off Reverend Powell on a new hunting trip. Powell pesters Harper about the location of the money and prays thanks to the Lord for giving him a chance to steal money. Robert Mitchum is fantastic, playing a man so vain and backwards using the God of Christianity to do the devil’s work.
After Harper is hung by the neck, Reverend Powell is let go and it’s off to find the money. He arrives at Harper’s West Virginia hometown on the Ohio River, impresses the townsfolk with his “clever” LOVE/HATE knuckle demonstration; an absurd, superficial telling of good over evil. With LOVE written on the knuckles of his right hand and HATE on his left, he intertwines his fingers and wrestles his hands together until the right hand, the hand of love, wins every time. It’s almost comical and there’s even an awkward silence immediately before an old woman says, “I never heard it better told.” Powell looks uncomfortable but he’s definitely thinking how way too easy this is.
After that, he inserts himself into the family, marrying the widow Willa so that he can gather intelligence about the hidden money. He learns that her and Harper’s children, the precocious John and his adorable little sister Pearl, know exactly where it is. Pearl loves Powell instantly (but stays loyal to John, refusing to disclose the hidden money to Powell), Willa is urged by the townsfolk to take his hand in marriage after some hesitation, and John is his father’s son; he doesn’t trust this vagabond masquerading as a preacher. While John and Powell are at odds, Powell rebukes Willa for expecting him to sleep with her on their wedding night, disgusted by the abominable things men are driven by. He makes her look at herself in the mirror and Willa asks the Lord to make her clean for Powell. Soon things escalate, as John and Pearl take the money and stuff it in her doll while John tries to handle this new man in his life. In a terrifying, darkly religious scene, Willa lays in bed with her arms crossed from fear in the steeple-shaped bedroom as Powell looms over her as if getting ready to baptize her. She learns the truth about their marriage and her fate is sealed. The next time we see her is at the bottom of the river in a breathtaking shot (seriously I don’t know how they did it), lifeless.
Powell tells the townspeople that Willa turned crazy and left for good. John knows better; he and Pearl hide in the basement. Powell finds them and Pearl finally reveals where the money is before they manage to escape, finding a canoe and heading downriver. This leads to one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes ever put to celluloid. Pearl sings a chilling but wonderful lullaby as they float down the river at night, the stars shining bright and abundant above, a spider-web hovering above them on the bridge, and a toad croaking riverside. The normalcy of night while two children run from an impending threat that has completely doomed any normalcy for them. They stop at a farm and sleep in a barn until Powell’s unsettling rendition of “Lean on the Everlasting Arms” (I’ll never hear this hymn from the end credits of the Coen’s modern True Grit the same ever again) carries from the distance. Then John sees him on his horse silhouetted against the moonlit sky walking along the inky black landscape. Another incredible shot straight from the German expressionism playbook of the 1920s. Naturally, John and Pearl bust out of there and continue their journey on the river. They wake up the next morning in the canoe to Rachel Cooper (played by silent film star Lillian Gish, 40 years after starring in the 1915 seminal blockbuster, Birth of a Nation), who just so happens to be a tough-loving saint and keeper of stray children. They take refuge with her, tending to her house and farm. She’s a devout Christian and often preaches to the children but John won’t have it, leaving at the sight of a Bible but he does overhear the story of baby Moses floating down a river and it piques his interest. The oldest child living with Rachel is Ruby, and on a trip into town to see about a boy, she falls under Reverend Powell’s charm, slipping him the goods on the exact whereabouts of John and Pearl. Powell shows up at Rachel’s house and we finally get another character that glares right at his evil nature.
She knows he isn’t a preacher and John lets her know he “ain’t my dad.” John takes the doll full of money and hides while Powell scurries away after Rachel points a shotgun at his face. He comes back later that night, prowling in the darkness singing his twisted rendition of “Everlasting Arms” while Rachel sits on the porch with her shotgun. She joins in the singing, adding “Lean on Jesus” while John sleeps peacefully under another steeple-shaped shadow in his room. Rachel watches an owl pounce on a rabbit. “It’s a hard world for little things,” she says.
Powell gets in the house but Rachel is there with the shotgun, shooting him in the shoulder. He heads to the barn, screaming from his wounds. The police arrive to arrest him, and John beats Powell with the doll, causing the money to flow out of it. Powell is taken away, soon to be executed. John and Pearl enjoy a first Christmas with Rachel as she properly give thanks to the Lord for them. “Lord save little children,” she says. “The wind blows and the rains are cold, yet they abide and they endure.”
Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is a thrilling rural gothic masterpiece about the innocence and endurance of children in a cruel world. With elevating lowlight, moody cinematography that is a pastiche of German expressionists films of the silent era, wonderful performances by the cast, and a simple story wrought with tension and creepiness that consistently shocks and astonishes, Hunter almost stands on its own in the great cinematic decade that is the 50s. Though the happy ending doesn’t work for some, I believe it fits the story well. After all, it is a story about children and their perpetual innocence, a spooky tale to tell at night before switching off the lights and closing the door. Before the devil comes knocking for good.