It would be a mistake to view Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter through the lens of realism when it was created within the prism of a parable and filtered through the eyes and bad dreams of a child. Even so, its themes of sexual repression and “female hysteria”, misogyny, serial murder and gullibility are unmistakably adult. Accordingly it was ridiculed during its day just as it is now routinely lauded. But make no mistake, now as then, it isn’t a film for everybody–just those who are willing to watch and listen, humbly and discerningly.
Ben Harper (a disconcertingly young and un-gray Peter Graves) is a desperate family man, out of luck and short on money in the Great Depression south, who does the unthinkable–he commits double murder during a bank robbery and then runs home with the loot and the cops hot on his trail. There he hides the money inside his daughter’s favorite doll while she and her big brother forlornly watch. He tries to escape to no avail. He is pathetically chased down and apprehended in his own front yard, but not before managing to give his son frantic instructions: Take care of your mother and sister; don’t tell anyone about the money, including your mother.
Condemned to the hangman’s noose, Harper spends his last days with a seemingly ne’er-do-well preacher/car thief who is, in fact, much worse than that. The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a woman hating serial killer who knows Harper never divulged where he hid the money.
Wisely, Harper isn’t swayed by the reverend’s feigned concern or attempts at “counseling”; he has seen the switchblade Powell has smuggled in. He tells his cellmate where he can go. But Powell is privy to the condemned man’s fitful, nightmare induced murmurings and from them–and the grapevine–he puts two and two together.
Sadly, but–perhaps–fittingly, Ben Harper has his date with the hangman while the disproportionately evil and undetected serial killer is set free. Of course he heads straight for the Harper family home, but on the way he is sidetracked by a burlesque show. The reverend watches the cavorting with the raucous male crowd and becomes incensed as he is aroused. He triggers the switchblade and the blade thrusts menacingly through his jacket pocket.
Harry Powell shouldn’t fool anyone. He looks exactly like what he is. He even has jailhouse tattoos inked just below the knuckles of each hand. L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E.
Yes, he wears the garb of a preacher and carries a Bible wherever he goes but displays none of the virtues of Christianity or characteristics of it’s founder; he is all fire, brimstone and wrath. His mannerisms are those of a stage actor–broad and sweeping as if he is playing only to the cheap seats. When he cries for the lost souls it’s all sobs and no tears.
Still he is tall, square jawed and good looking, so there’s that. Plus he exudes a potent charisma and sensuality that attracts the very women he is so repulsed by–and then some. One of those women is the widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters).
Willa Harper isn’t a bad woman. She loves her children and tries desperately to provide for them. But she’s weak. She is exactly the type of woman who would take up with the scoundrel Ben Harper and then feel so guilty about it–and so lonely for a sexual companion–that she allows herself to be seduced by a pious fraud much worse than her executed husband ever was.
Things move fast as they did during those times and Willa and Harry Powell are soon married. Everybody is happy, at least at first, except for the Harper boy, John.
John (Billy Chapin) is wise beyond his age which is about eight. He takes good care of his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jean Bruce) who doesn’t know any better than to be enamored with her “new daddy”. Her brother, though, is not impressed. He sees straight through the preacher and engages him in a war of wills.
Deducing that there is no way the boy will be seduced into telling where the money is, Powell resorts to threats and violence–behind Willa’s back of course.
At first Willa, aglow in the blush of being a new bride, is easily deceived. She soon finds out, however, that Harry Powell has a rather odd idea of the marital bed: it is for procuring children only. When she approaches him, he coldly asks her if she wants more children? “No,” she replies. “Good,” he says and then turns his back to her.
Disillusioned by her new husband’s lack of interest and dismayed by his cruelty, Willa gradually allows herself to see Harry Powell as he really is. Though she has convinced herself that Ben threw the money into the river to avoid being caught with it, she overhears Powell trying to coerce Pearl into revealing where it is. When she confronts him with what she’s heard he accosts her with his switchblade. She does not resist. Instead she offers herself up as a lamb to his slaughter, leaving her children to fend off the fiend by themselves.
By the grace of God and some comical bungling, John and Pearl manage to escape into the night aboard a skiff, but not before Powell finds out that the money is in the doll. Passed out from exhaustion they are unaware that the skiff has beached, while the reverend doggedly peruses them on land. He is afraid of water.
Fortunately they are discovered by a kindly old woman (Lillian Gish) who takes in and cares for wandering, disaffected children of the Great Depression. She isn’t sure how she will feed an extra two mouths, only that she will.
Her name is Rachel Cooper. And while she is petite, angelic and truly Christian, she is no slouch with a switch, as John finds out, or a shotgun either, which is a good thing since the Reverend Harry Powell has tracked his quarry to her door.
The Night of the Hunter is a cinematic marvel to behold. It was lushly and curiously photographed in black and white at a time when studios were clamoring for technicolor films. Some sequences–the night time nature panorama in particular–have a strange phosphorescent quality that renders it utterly unique in cinematic history.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez who also shot Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, was a bold and experimental artist. Honing his craft in 40s film noir where he worked with the legendary creator of the genre Fritz Lang, Cortez was able to pull out every forced perspective trick in the book and he used many of them on the economical and inventive The Night of the Hunter set.
Take the famous hayloft scene in which John and Pearl, perched in the loft of a barn, see the reverend’s tiny figure in the distance riding a horse, his distinctive hat silhouetted against the moonlight. The entire locale was constructed on a very small back-lit set, the depth and distance engineered by the height of the loft built almost to the roof of the stage, and the scale achieved by a dwarf riding on a miniature pony.
Although Cortez’s fingerprints are all over The Night of the Hunter, it is not his film. He is merely a commissioned–though highly prized–artist hired to orchestrate Director Charles Laughton’s idiosyncratic vision.
Laughton conceptualized and delivered an overtly stylized film, rife with symbolism and exaggerated angles that mimic the blade of Powell’s ever present switchblade. He used the fairy tale as a motif and was inspired by pen and ink illustrations that were popular in pulpy periodicals of the 1930’s.
Perhaps most impressively, due to his own prestigious acting career, he was able to assemble an A list cast on a 795,000.00 budget that, while not B list, was certainly well below the extravagant multi million dollar budgets of the musicals Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma! that premiered the same year. Fellow Brit thespian and movie star Laurence Olivier wanted the role of Harry Powell but Robert Mitchum won it when, during the audition, Laughton described the character as “a diabolical shit” whereupon “Old Rumple Eyes” raised his hand and said, “present.”
Likewise Laughton’s casting of silent screen legend Lillian Gish was fortuitous. Originally he wanted his wife Elsa Lanchester (who most famously portrayed “the bride” in The Bride of Frankenstien) to play Rachel Cooper but she turned down the part and suggested Gish instead.
Gish’s portrayal of Miss Rachel is nothing short of inspired. She is the light that contrasts the black expanse of the hole in the Reverend Powell’s soul. In the same way, her characterization emphasizes the chasm between gullibility and Christianity; between devotion and religiosity.
Sadly, Laughton’s masterpiece was a critical and commercial failure in 1955. Though American audiences were/are aware of duplicitous men of the cloth, they rejected the depiction of the perverted, murderous Reverend Powell none-the-less. European audiences, largely spared and, therefore, ignorant of this primarily American charlatan, resented the representation as well. Charles Laughton never directed another film. Reportedly he was deeply wounded by his film’s failure. He died of renal cancer in 1962.
But the Director Charles Laughton and his film, like many so many other famous examples of artist and masterpiece, would fare much, much better posthumously. In 1992, the United States Library of Congress signified The Night of the Hunter to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and selected the film for preservation in its prestigious National Film Registry. It is just one of the many accolades heaped upon a provocative and beautiful film about the humble triumph of good over the seemingly overwhelming forces of evil.