Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)
Director: Charles Laughton
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce.
Synopsis: Directed by venerable actor Charles Laughton, murderous preacher Harry Powell comes calling to a small West Virginian town, seeking the stolen money a bank robber hid with his children.
Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell
I first watched The Night of the Hunter when I was ten years old after my dad, persuaded by the film’s degrading from an X to a 12A rating, bought a DVD copy. Ninety minutes later one October evening and I was absolutely terrified. I remember being unable to go to bed after watching the film, afraid to venture into the darkened upstairs and find the maniacal preacher waiting there. Re-watching The Night of the Hunter fourteen years later on the big screen, the film may not scare but still resonates with an unnerving portent.
Malevolence and innocence
A child stumbles across a victim of Harry Powell
The Night of the Hunter is about innocence caught in the snares of malevolence. Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and stalwart youngster John Harper (Billy Chapin) are these opposing forces, beginning in the film’s title screen as the preacher’s blaring score roars and fades into children singing. Even before promising to hide his father’s stolen bank money, the camera places John and sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) into a dark adult world. The Night of the Hunter debuts with the camera descending from the sky onto a quiet neighbourhood. Approaching down towards the ground, a group of adults turn into a group of boys who in their play find another widow killed by Harry Powell. The body’s discovery is an omen that only children, specifically John, see Harry Powell for what he is. To the adults of the small West Virginian town he encounters, Powell is a saviour. All the adults John and Pearl know are in someways flawed, even Uncle Birdie who is wary of the preacher has a drinking problem. Besides old Uncle Birdie, Powell becomes an answer to the adults’ flaws, be it the Spoons’ desire for normalcy or Willa Harper’s yearning for absolution after her husband’s crimes.
Sex and death
The burlesque show Harry Powell attends
The Night of the Hunter was simply perturbing as a child, but watching it again with an adult’s eyes is to appreciate a different, far more complex film. It would be deemed mild if released today, but by the chaffing standards of the 1950’s, The Night of the Hunter is overtly sexual. The switchblade Harry Powell wields with his ‘hate’ inscribed left hand is a phallic symbol of his sexual impotence towards women, erupting from his pocket as he grimly attends a burlesque show. Powell is compelled towards murder by women but strangely women fall into Powell’s mesmerising orbit. Half of the town where the Harpers live are equally obsessed with sex, talking about it with a winking subtlety like Mrs. Spoon’s recollection of ‘laying on my back and thinking about my canning’. Willa Harper’s desire for Powell warps into a hysterical zealotry when they marry and her advances are scorned, while one of Rachel Cooper’s (Lillian Gish) adopted children has been doing more than courting on a Thursday night. The only adult who sees Powell clearly is the least sexual woman in the film, the kind Rachel Cooper.
The devil is in town
Harry Powell arrives to town
The audience is privy to the depth of Harry Powell’s evil as he candidly talks to God about murdering widows during his introduction. There is no further depravity Powell can fall to; he just becomes more powerful, morphing from a serial killer into a demonic malevolence. Powell’s arrival is ominously heralded by a benighted steam train screaming across West Virginia and then like a vampire, Powell lingers outside the Harper house, his shadow casting over John. Powell’s power only abounds as he charms his way into the town, hiding his hideous self behind his right hand of ‘Love’. By the conclusion of The Night of the Hunter Powell loses the mask of humanity, becoming an inexorable evil hell-bent on taking John and Pearl.
The supernatural strength of Harry Powell partly stems from actor Robert Mitchum’s performance. He lends to Powell his natural charm, but like Joseph Cotton in Shadow of A Doubt Mitchum channels a darkness that only Michael Shannon seems to grasp among today’s actors. Charles Laughton’s use of light and dark, accentuated by the black and white film, propels Powell’s otherworldly stature. At key parts of the film, Powell’s figure is projected as a shadow doggedly following the children or Powell himself is illuminated in contrast to the dark surroundings, giving him a ghoulish air.
A web of intricacies
A failure upon release in 1955, Charles Laughton swore to never direct again after The Night of the Hunter. Yet what Laughton created was a story of economic design that has preserved The Night of the Hunter through the decades. Loaded with symbolism, every part of The Night of the Hunter connects both forwards and backwards. The film’s design and imagery imbues a circular logic, with Rachel Cooper’s warning of false prophets becoming realised in her standoff against Powell, as the hymn Powell habitually sings fails to match Cooper’s version. Compared to the grand scale of other post war films which have stood to the present, The Night of the Hunter is distinguished by the minute details. From Powell’s tattooed knuckles acting both as his facade and his tell, to the frame of Willa Harper’s bedroom evoking a church roof, every frame contains a meaning. What this creates is a film that can be reinterpreted repeatedly, keeping The Night of Hunter fresh to this day.
Thanks to Home Manchester for screening The Night of the Hunter.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: