The Night of the Hunter
by Robert Horton
“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.
Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.
Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.
Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.
You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.
Another helicopter shot finds Harry, trundling along the country roads in a Model T. The dead woman is clearly Harry’s handiwork; as he admits in his conversations with the Almighty, his habit—and pleasure—is killing rich widows. In his wide-brimmed hat and black suit, he looks like an avenging angel—and we haven’t even noticed his knuckles yet, which bear the tattooed letters LOVE and HATE on each hand (the film’s most famous contribution to popular culture, still borrowed for movies today, including Do the Right Thing). His homicidal fingers come into play when the Reverend Powell delivers his stirring lecture on “the little story of right hand, left hand,” a dubious discourse that convinces complacent suckers but doesn’t fool Powell’s adversary, a child. (Pauline Kael keenly noted that Powell is “a Pied Piper in reverse: adults trust him, children try to escape.”)
A full description of this monster leads us to the actor playing him, Robert Mitchum, whose finest hour this is. A notorious Hollywood bad boy, a barrel-chested stud of little respect (that is, he gave little and received little), Mitchum had the kind of effortless, self-contained movie presence that better actors would die for. While always capable and credible, Mitchum pushed his persona in The Night of the Hunter; Powell may be a classic personification of evil, but the performance is highly original, not least because he uses humor to explore Harry’s dark places. This is an absolutely modern approach, pre-dating the sidelong wit of Norman Bates in Psycho and the stand-up comedy of Freddy Krueger.
Mitchum’s devious huckster is breathtakingly contemptuous of the rubes around him; he all but laughs in their faces as he spreads his ludicrously flimsy falsehoods. But the actor doesn’t let the performance become a joke. Every now and then the animal in Harry comes out, in his strangled, frightening vocal howls, or the canine way Mitchum cocks his head. People who see The Night of the Hunter in childhood never forget the terror of Harry Powell, and I think Mitchum instills fear not merely because of his cruelty, but because of his sarcasm. He’s like a bad parent (literally, he’s the evil stepfather) who knows that sneering mockery is at least as unsettling to children as open anger.
Harry Powell insinuates himself into the lives of the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). In prison, Harry has questioned Willa’s husband Ben (Peter Graves), a robber, about where $10,000 from a bank job might be hidden. After Ben is executed, Harry sweeps into town to marry the widow and find the money. The perversions of this marriage come fast and thick: Harry denounces Willa’s sexual interest during their wedding night, and she becomes a religious zealot, blaming her wicked self for her dead husband’s misdeeds. (Shelley Winters is fascinating, and very good, in the role.) Poor Willa ends up as one of Harry’s victims, killed in a bedroom lighted to resemble a cathedral. Her body is discovered by the viewer in one of the film’s visual coups: the camera descends through water, past the gently waving fronds of river weeds, finally finding Willa sunk like a mermaid, her hair waving in the current.
This movie’s sexual aspects alone merit a dissertation. Most of the characters have one dysfunction or another, and the film makes a point of letting the town busybody (Evelyn Varden) orate about her own lack of interest in the conjugal arts. Harry Powell is evidently impotent, but his knife serves as a violent substitute. In an early scene, Harry sits in a burlesque house, watching the grinding of a stripper onstage, his official disapproval undercut when his knife flicks open and pricks through his pants pocket.
The second half of the film brings a remarkable shift. The Harper children elude Harry’s grasp and escape down the river in a small boat. Eventually they are taken in by a peculiar woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish, re-appearing) who adopts “stray chicks” or “little lambs” into her brood of orphans. Laughton’s approach turns to lyric poetry, as the boat glides through the nightscape, its progress watched over by animals (animal are constantly referenced, visually and verbally). A haunting song accompanies the children on this delicate journey, and music is another constant motif in the film, from folk and gospel songs sung onscreen to Harry’s ominous habit of crooning “Leaning…leaning…leaning on the everlasting arm.”
Most of this is seen on obviously studio-built sets, as though a children’s book had come to life (Francois Truffaut said the film was “like a horrifying news item retold by small children”). At this point you realize that The Night of the Hunter is young John’s story, a symbolic tale in which a boy grows into a protector and in a Freudian exercise kills, or causes the death of, his symbolic father. The film might be the imaginative dream of John, trying to make sense of the loss of his executed, disgraced dad. A veritable Dictionary of Symbols is herein: the owl that swoops down on a rabbit, the eggs dropped and broken by a girl startled at the appearance of Harry, the apples exchanged by John and his surrogate mother, and John’s Christmas gift from Rachel, a watch (curiously echoing an unexplained throwaway scene from the beginning of the film, when he admires a pocket watch in a store window). Laughton’s approach is so tender that none of this seems forced or heavy-handed, but a natural part of the weave of a fairy tale boiled down to essentials.
But a description of the film’s themes hardly captures its uncanny power. The way paper dolls are swept away in an eerie wind, the use of an iris effect (an allusion to the silent film techniques of D.W. Griffith, Gish’s mentor-director), the bright light off the water that shimmers across Harry’s face as an innocuous picnic goes on behind him—these are the touches that create such a sustained sense of mystery and lyricism. One sideline scene deserves mention: just after the offscreen execution of Ben Harper, we follow a prison guard as he goes home after the hanging, quietly greets his wife, washes his hands, and wonders about the wisdom of keeping his job. He looks in on the bedroom of his children, a boy and a girl, like Ben Harper’s kids; they sleep, and glow. The guard is completely peripheral to the movie, with another brief appearance just at the end, yet the movie takes time for this unnecessary, vaguely disturbing moment. Offhand, I can’t think of anything else quite like it in American film.
Of course, the film flopped. United Artists threw its publicity money behind another Mitchum picture, Not As a Stranger, and didn’t back The Night of the Hunter. The audience stayed away accordingly. (“It’s a hard world for little things,” as Rachel Cooper says.) Critics were bewildered but intrigued, if they noticed the film at all: “Often too busy being arty to be scary,” noted Life magazine, which nevertheless recognized “an authentic American fable.” As the years went by, The Night of the Hunter grew in stature, first as a cult movie, then as a truly visionary film. When the German film magazine SteadyCam surveyed international critics in 1995 for their favorite movies—not the dusty “best” of all time, but faves—The Night of the Hunter came in at fourth place, ahead of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia and North by Northwest.
All of which was small consolation to the people who made it. Mitchum returned to his laid-back ruggedness, Cortez to erratic studio work, and Agee was dead within the year. Walter Schumann, who devised the fascinating music score, also died early. (Mitchum evoked the preacher in at least two subsequent films: as the swamp-monster ex-convict in Cape Fear, and as a defrocked priest in The Wrath of God. The Night of the Hunter was remade as an irrelevant Richard Chamberlain TV-movie in 1991.) Laughton never directed another film, a bitter disappointment for an extremely sensitive man, and died in 1962 before the movie’s cult status began to form—the too-familiar price paid for being ahead of one’s time. None of the sad production history of the film is reflected in the movie itself, however, which is never less than authoritative, assured, and confidently strange. For just one film, Laughton was a master.