Opening Up a Treasure: The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter
U.S.A. / MGM / 1955 / Black and White / 93 minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
A predominantly aggressive four-note danger motif is heard during the opening credits. The terrifying music quickly segues into a hypnotic dream-like melody, promising a tale with shockingly vivid contrasts of fright and serenity, right and wrong, good and evil. Seen first is the image of an elderly woman speaking to children, their faces in the night’s sky amidst the stars. These little innocents are getting a bible lesson regarding false prophets. Then there’s a distant skyward view downwards to some kids playing and their discovery of a woman’s lifeless body. Those 4 blasts of dread reappear: She's another victim of one of those “ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing” the teacher referred to. This disguised prophet is the main character whom we will get to know all too well, throughout a story that will consistently reinforce the promised opening theme of duality, until that same matronly overseer concludes this imaginative fable with some pointed words about children, only this time directed to us.
Actor Charles Laughton's sole directorial feature film The Night of the Hunter is a mesmerising cinematic story about a murderous sociopath, Harry Powell, posing as a preacher. Arrested after stealing an automobile, he finds out about stolen money his cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) killed for, and decides to pursue his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) after Harper's execution. Powell feigns romantic interest in the widow, even marries her, only to physically humiliate and reject her on their wedding night. After she discovers his true intentions, Willa is savagely murdered by Powell who then attempts to extract the information about the stolen cash from her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Both know where the money is and maintain their secrecy until Powell threatens to kill John in front of his little sister. They manage to escape before Powell can retrieve the money, but he tirelessly pursues them throughout the countryside over many days and nights.
One of this film's most unique qualities is its audacious, often conflicting perspectives. It appears like a Grimm fairy tale only a whole lot grimmer. The two little ones who take to the river in a skiff to get away from the deadly preacher have no one: The state has executed their father, a religious zealot their mother. Even John's adult, proud and boastful friend ‘Uncle Birdie’ becomes a useless drunken coward at a time when they are most in need of help. Many of the scenes with the Reverend and the two orphaned children are frightening. Robert Mitchum as Preacher Harry Powell, in perhaps his most committed performance, doesn't hold back his intense rage when alone with the little ones. When he emphatically states to Pearl: "Tell me [about the money] you little wretch or I'll tear your arm off” or when he threatens John with his switchblade drawn saying "Speak, or I'll cut your throat and leave you to drip like a hog hung up at butchering time" we believe him. The filmmakers creatively develop the children's identities by portraying numerous endearing interactions between them and those they encounter. This adds to the suspense, and helps engage our concern and deep sympathy for both.
Laughton spins this Southern gothic tale set during America’s Great Depression from a script by esteemed writer and noted film critic James Agee, taken from Davis Grubb's novel. The filmmakers combine a diverse range of photographic techniques including helicopter shots, "wipes", deep focus, even an "iris" to creatively enhance its storybook feel. However frightening and tragic the circumstances become, the story is full of stylistically overt, sharply defined characters, imagery, and music. If any film represents expressionism it's The Night of the Hunter with a child's simplistic point of view often informing its conflicts: Innocence clashes with cruelty. Truth against lies. Determinism confronts complacency. Realism with fakery. This pronounced dichotomy is exemplified by Powell's "left hand, right hand" enactment of struggle, with the letters l*o*v*e” and “h*a*t*e tattooed on each hand's fingers. Ironically his demonstration makes love the triumphant force even though the preacher himself would never allow for that in his reality. We witness the preamble of Willa's demise, lying in bed, her arms folded like a saint accepting her tragic fate as ordained. Powell towers over her, his knife ready, amidst dark angular shadows that make her bedroom, symbolically unconsummated with the devil, look like a church. Thereafter, we see the aftermath of the murdered widow tied to a car sunk in the river, her long golden hair gracefully flowing in the undercurrents, care of the photographic artistry of Stanley Cortez, accompanied by Walter Schumann's pretty little minuet. Later, after John and Pearl narrowly escape a wrathful Powell in a small boat, the serenity of the two floating down the river becomes a respite from the previous terror. It’s poetry in motion: Pearl sings a beautiful song while little animals along the river bank watch them float by.
Lilian Gish plays Rachel Cooper, the woman first seen reading from the bible. She’s a strong matronly protector of more than a few young innocents who adds the lost, hungry, and sleep deprived John and Pearl to her fold when their skiff washes ashore. The same southern-fundamentalist religious beliefs are proclaimed by both sides of love and hate, Cooper and Powell, good and evil. She is as biblically demonstrative as the preacher, which at first understandably scares John away, but Cooper's true sense of compassion brings John back. Both adults will at times question their personal hardships by talking to themselves. Their real shared affinity, however fleeting and specific, is most clearly demonstrated when Cooper, guarding Pearl and John with a shotgun during the night, joins with Powell singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms while he waits outside her home for the right opportunity to strike and abduct the two kids he’s been after.
The widest possible contrast of oppositional forces and how they can unexpectedly change is what this film is all about. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the most devastatingly emotional scenes when John sees Powell finally brought down by the authorities the same way his father was. John desperately tries to give Powell the money he tried so hard to get and that John previously risked his life to keep him from. This final resolution of the story’s primary conflict is just one of many displays of inalienable emotions and their subsequent malleability. All of the numerous characters in this story, no matter how incidental, will exhibit a pronounced personal reaction to the occurring events they witness. Additionally, some, like John’s final feelings toward Powell, (he even refuses to identify him on trial for his mother’s murder in court) will switch to a completely opposite attitude. Little Pearl alternately shows terror, and a deep loving acceptance toward Powell as her new father. Willa is taken in by Powell’s handsomeness, beautiful baritone singing voice and later, fire and brimstone sermonising, so much so that she resigns herself to a terrible deadly fate, despite realising his true motives. Powell’s efforts to get the money are so determined that when denied often elicit his child-like reactions and at times even look comical. While on the hunt for John and Pearl he joins some fruit pickers by a campfire. After denouncing children everywhere, one of the men spits on the fire in response, (a singular silent gesture reminiscent of a stage hand’s reaction to an operatic singer in Citizen Kane). There’s Ruby, Miss Cooper’s teenage charge. Desperately longing for some male attention, she becomes enamoured with Powell when he buys her an ice cream simply to coax some information from her about Pearl and John. After his arrest for the murder of Willa, Ruby maintains her high regard for the killer, becoming his most vocal defender. This last occurrence contrasts greatly with Icey Spoon, a friend and employer of Willa's who fell completely for Powell’s charm when he was falsely preaching about acceptance, the good book and simultaneously wooing Willa. After Powell’s arrest, Spoon screams vengeance leading a riotous lynch mob against the preacher, which forces the authorities to evacuate Powell out the jail's back way. Even the hangman has a few words to say about looking forward to performing his duty on the Preacher, contrasting with his regretful, guilt-ridden attitude toward his former charge, Ben Harper. Miss Cooper displays her own conflicting feelings as well. After shooting at Powell as he enters her house at night, she looks genuinely concerned, almost sorry for any harm she may have inflicted.
The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” may apply to personal relationships but not to the general public’s response to the movies. At least in this case, it seems audiences wanted something they could familiarise themselves with. The few who attended failed to appreciate The Night of the Hunter’s sudden shifts in temperament and dynamics, its strange combination of children in peril, with adult themes of religious hypocrisy and sexual frustrations, judging by the film’s negative critical and public reception. They couldn’t appreciate that this was a story interpreted, not told “straight-up.” A misleading trailer and advertisements may have been partly to blame. The Night of the Hunter is a fable about the harsh reality of adults’ baser instincts, false concepts, and how repression, guilt and a failure to resolve these conflicting impulses only worsen the situation, often leaving the innocents to bear the consequences. It’s a continuation of Miss Cooper’s opening lesson, experienced through the eyes of a child, with some stark, stage-like settings and feverishly embellished dramatic portrayals of oppositional forces. Kudos to Paul Gregory for buying the rights to Davis Grubb's novel and courageously producing this landmark opus. As significant as Agee’s intelligent script and Grubb’s literary source are, it’s Laughton’s assured, passionate and innovative artistry that makes this as ground-breaking a cinematic achievement as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Welles’ Citizen Kane or Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. We can appreciate those bold, daring, masterful brush strokes now. Audiences in the ’50’s couldn’t and Laughton, discouraged by the response, never painted on another cinematic canvas again. Such a pity. There is, however, this, his one visionary creation for us to cherish. It helps us “abide”, and thus makes this unique motion picture “endure.” Praise the Lord!