THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955, Dir. Charles Laughton)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) resides on the margins of the noir phenomenon. It’s a strange, lyrical film that somehow feels very different from most noir films, even though it contains most of the main characteristics of noir. It features some of the greatest Expressionist cinematography in all of film noir; its central character is played by Robert Mitchum, one of noir’s biggest stars; that character is both a grifter and a psychotic killer and thus a hybrid of two classic noir characters; and many scenes of the film have a mesmerizing, oneiric quality, something that is also shared with many noir films. At the same time, Mitchum’s Harry Powell is extreme (and frightening) enough as a villain to spill over into the realm of the horror film, while those striking Expressionist visuals remain as much in the world of horror as in that of film noir. The film is also built upon stark oppositions between good and evil of a kind rarely found in noir films. The Night of the Hunter thus serves as a key demonstration of the substantial amount of terrain shared by film noir and horror.

The filmbegins with a shot of a starry night sky against which the opening credits are displayed, accompanied by dramatic music that would be quite at home in the seedy world of film noir. Then the music suddenly switches to the traditional lullaby “Dream, Little One, Dream,” sung by a chorus of children. In its first few seconds, then, the film already mixes suggestions of sinfulness with suggestions of innocence, while the use of this children’s chorus introduces a certain haunting element that would be used to good effect in later horror films, such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Meanwhile, this juxtaposition of the innocent with the debauched, the sacred with the profane, will run throughout the film, whose stark oppositions between Good and Evil are echoed in the startling black-and-white cinematography, providing one of the film’s key structural elements. Thematically, these stark oppositions inhere most obviously in the confrontation between Mitchum’s depraved character and two innocent children, John and Pearl Harper (played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Powell, meanwhile, is also opposed to the saintly, Mother Goose-like Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), though in this case Rachel is more than a match for him. But Harry Powell himself, in a sense, already embodies the sacred/profane binary: a con artist and killer, he presents himself as an ultra-pious man of god. He also carries a form of this opposition inscribed on his body, in the form of the “H-A-T-E” that is tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand and the “L-O-V-E” that is tattooed on his right.

Powell, however, is not a complex figure. Though he can present a charming façade, he is thoroughly evil. In fact, he is such a figure of extreme evil, that he takes on almost mythical dimensions, rather than being a realistic character, thus anticipating the allegorical figuration (though in a very different way) of a character such as Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise. However, unlike Myers, Powell is not really all that formidable; he is a danger primarily to the helpless, while he himself is ultimately weak and cowardly, defeated fairly easily by anyone who is properly prepared to take him on. Mitchum, meanwhile, goes all out in portraying Powell as an over-the-top character, even giving him certain comic (though sinister) touches, that help to emphasize his ultimate weakness.[1]

Powell also has a penchant for preying (and praying) on widows and children, which sets him in direct opposition to the innocent and the vulnerable in a way that gives the film an almost fable-like quality, making him a sort of Big Bad Wolf character. The relationship between Powell and his victims is echoed in the film in one highly telling scene in which a predatory owl attacks a helpless baby bunny, which it destroys off camera. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mutters Rachel in the wake of this attack, providing the film with one of its key messages. The film, meanwhile, comes down firmly on the side of those little things, providing them not only with a protector in Rachel, but also making young John Harper the main point-of-view character, so that we see everything through his eyes. Meanwhile, by making its victims so vulnerable and helpless, its heroine so spotless, and its villain so vile, the film operates on the basis of clear moral distinctions of a kind that are often found in horror films but that are rare in film noir, which tends to operate more in a gray area of moral ambiguity.

The film proper opens with a sort of prologue in which Ben Harper (Peter Graves), driven to desperation by the impoverished conditions that threaten his family in this Depression-era story, commits a robbery (during which he kills two men) and hides the stolen cash inside daughter Pearl’s rag doll, just before being captured and taken away by police. Harper, then, is a sort of film noir character, a basically good man driven by circumstances to do bad things then doomed to pay the ultimate price. Convicted of murder, Harper awaits execution in prison, where he, for a time, shares a cell with Powell, who learns about the stolen money when Harper mumbles about it in his sleep. Harper is then executed, exiting the film, which is then turned over to Powell. Thus, as soon as he is released, Powell heads for Harper’s home town, quickly befriends Ben’s widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), and cons her into marrying him, ultimately making her one of a string of widows that he has married, then murdered. That leaves Powell in charge of the orphaned Harper children, whom he tries to badger into revealing the whereabouts of their father’s stolen loot, sending them fleeing on a harrowing river journey until they are taken in by the kindly Rachel, who has already taken in several other lost children. Powell eventually tracks the children there, but is shot and wounded by Rachel, then captured by police (in a scene choreographed to mirror the capture of Harper earlier), leaving the children safe, though the money is lost in the course of Powell’s capture.

This relatively straightforward story offers lots of opportunities for tense moments, especially involving the threat posed by Powell to the children. In that sense, the film clearly has more in common with horror than with noir, which very seldom involves children at all, and especially not as key victims of violence. But the sense of the threat posed by Powell, first to Willa (whom he murders surprisingly abruptly), then to the children, is conveyed more through a slowly building sense of almost supernatural menace than through instances of actual violence. This film is clearly more about images and atmosphere than about action. For example, a screen wipe takes us directly into another scene (a shot of the innocent, sleeping Harper children), just before Willa’s actual murder, for example, and it is not even entirely clear that she has been murdered until we next see her, a few minutes later, in the film’s most famous shot, lodged in her car, sitting at the bottom of the river, her hair floating hauntingly, Ophelia-like, in the water along with the underwater flora.[2]

Such images are one of the reasons why a 2007 poll of film critics and historians conducted by the important French film journal Cahiers du Cinema named The Night of the Hunter the second “most beautiful” film of all time, just one vote behind the top film, Citizen Kane. Meanwhile, the death of their mother leaves the children at the mercy of Powell, though (surprisingly), they remain under his control for only nine minutes of runtime (exactly in the middle of the film) after the revelation of Willa’s body, escaping downriver on a nighttime boat journey that is itself rather terrifying—but that also provides some of the film’s most striking Expressionist visuals. These visuals heighten the fairy-tale texture of this journey, which is interspersed with shots of small, innocent animals along the banks of the river as the children pass by.

The journey begins as the children reach the small skiff in which they will float down the river, with Powell in hot pursuit. But an initial shot of him seen in silhouette again makes him an impersonal figure of menace, embodying all the dark forces of the world. Such forces are also suggested by the large spider web that the children pass by soon after they begin moving down the river, while these sinister images are contrasted along the way with shots of innocent, peaceful animals such as rabbits and sheep and by a view of a beautiful starry sky. The entire journey is a tour-de-force of Expressionist imagery, highlighted by a spectacular shot of the buildings at a farm where the children will stop to spend the night in the loft of a barn—though their sleep will be interrupted by the arrival of Powell, who has murdered a farmer and stolen a horse in order to pursue them.

The highly artistic depiction of this journey also involves some engagement with material reality, though, especially in the way it depicts John and Pearl as typical figures in a Depression environment where lost and wandering children are a commonplace. This Depression context was not emphasized in Grubb’s original novel, so one can assume that it is largely the addition of Agee, well known as a documenter of Depression-era poverty in Appalachia, especially in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), supplemented by the striking photography of Walker Evans. At one point, the John and Pearl stop at a farmhouse where a woman is rather grumpily handing out scraps of food, seeming to resent the necessity of doing so, but feeling obligated to feed the hungry, homeless children who pass by, including John and Pearl, who get one baked potato each.

Photo of hungry, Depression-era children from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

The research conducted by Agree and Evans in support of their book was conducted primarily among poor sharecropper families in Alabama. The Night of the Hunter does not actually specify its setting, though most observers have assumed that the film takes place in West Virginia, as does the action of the novel on which it is based. West Virginia, one of the poorest states in America, was also one of the hardest hit by the Depression, an experience that it has in common with most of the South. Indeed, The Night of the Hunter has a rather Southern feel to it, despite the fact that West Virginia is not, technically, a Southern state. Thus, Christina Marie Newland has discussed the film as a key example of the Southern Gothic in film, comparing it with William Friedkin’s more recent Killer Joe (2011), which is set in Texas. However, Newland notes that, while Freidkin’s film depicts the South (and especially poor Southerners) as monstrous, Laughton’s finds more redeeming values in the South, especially in the character of Rachel. For Newland, The Night of the Hunter

“allows for considerable optimism about the role of women in Southern society and the triumph for [sic] moral good. Rachel is a civilizing force in a wild, perilous world. Essentially, The Night of the Hunter weds the Southern Gothic to a regional pride which finds something in the traditional South that is worth preserving. It lacks the widespread primitivism of Friedkin’s South, constructing a good versus evil fairy-tale version of the genre which harks back to its English Gothic literary tradition” (37).

This English Gothic tradition, of course, exerted considerable influence on the development of American horror film, and many aspects of The Night of the Hunter do seem to show the influence of this tradition. One of the films, for example, that clearly hovers in the background of Laughton’s film is James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), a film by an English director that was based on what is probably the best-known of all English Gothic novels. Laughton, of course, knew Whale quite well[3], and had acted for that director in one of his first film roles, in the very Gothic The Old Dark House (1932). Laughton no doubt also knew Frankenstein well, so it is no surprise that that film is echoed in The Night of the Hunter. Powell, for example, is a very real monster, though we are not sure how he was created. He thus ironically echoes the much more sympathetic monster of Whale’s film. He also sometimes visually echoes that monster as well, as in the scene in which he clumsily chases the Harper children up the stairs out of their basement, arms outstretched. And, of course, there is that final mob scene in which the enraged townspeople take to the streets to try to ensure that Powell pays for his crime, recalling the notorious mob of villagers that goes after the hapless monster in Frankenstein.

The Night of the Hunter thus adds complexity by establishing links to a number of cultural predecessors, while functioning primarily as a simple fairy-tale-like allegory about good and evil. On the other hand, the film also maintains a strong connection with material and historical reality. For example, while Powell might function as a generalized allegory of evil, we are given enough information in the film to be able to construct a fairly detailed picture of the psychology that drives him. During his very first sequence, we see him “conversing” with god, which establishes his religiosity—which is carefully delineated in the film as a perversion of genuine Christian feeling, thus allowing the film to skirt the Production Code’s ban on criticizing religion. Meanwhile, as Powell continues his talk with god, he projects his own feelings onto that deity, assuring himself that god hates “perfume-smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair”—in other words, all things that smack of feminine sexuality. Powell is clearly driven by a pathological misogyny that has caused him to style himself a moral avenger striking out against women and their sexual sinfulness. The film then immediately cuts to a burlesque show, where Powell sits in the audience observing a stripper onstage. This scene could, of course, be taken as a sign of his hypocrisy, except that he does not appear to be attracted by the dancer onstage. In fact, he seems more enraged than aroused, clenching the fist with the “H-A-T-E” tattoo. He slips that hand furtively into his pocket, not to masturbate (as one might expect in such a setting, though of course not in a 1950s Hollywood film), but to flip open his switchblade knife, which cuts through his coat in an obscene parody of an erection. One gets the clear impression that Powell plans to murder the dancer to punish her for her sinful ways—except for the fact that a policeman arrives and arrests him for car theft at that exact moment.

Later, after Powell marries Willa, she finds that switchblade in his coat pocket, but thinks nothing of it. “Men,” she says, amused that a grown man has apparently not outgrown his boyhood fascination with knives—not realizing that this knife is Powell’s favorite murder weapon (and will ultimately be used to murder Willa herself). Willa then goes to their conjugal bed, clearly ready to consummate the marriage. Powell, however, harshly rebuffs her wedding-night sexual willingness and explains to her that her body is a “temple of creation and motherhood” and that having sex for any reason other than procreation would be a profanation of that temple. They will, in fact, never have sex; he will penetrate her only with that switchblade knife, carrying forth the substitution of murderous violence for sex that we had already seen in the burlesque scene to be a central part of Powell’s twisted thinking.

That thinking, of course, is inseparable from Powell’s religious inclinations, though the film is careful not to suggest overtly that religion causes the kind of perversion that Powel displays. Indeed, Powell clearly adheres to no known organized religion. Though a professed “preacher,” who reads from the Bible and sings standard hymns,[4] he never even once mentions Jesus in the entire course of the film, which acts to distance him from any existing Christian sect, making his particular religion a product of his own warped mind, rather than the other way around. At the same time, of course, Powell’s perversion must have come from somewhere, but the film gives us no information about what might have caused him to be the way he is, leaving open religion as a possible culprit.

In this and other ways, one is thus still free to read the film as a critique of religion if one so chooses. In fact, it is difficult not to do so, because (despite being careful not to identify Powell with any specific Christian denomination) the film quite accurately depicts many of his attitudes as typical of fundamentalist religious traditions in America. Indeed, Carl Laamanen has argued that the largely negative reaction (some of which was quite vitriolic) to the film upon its initial release can largely be attributed to the fact that so many Americans of the time saw it as an assault on their cherished religious beliefs. For Laamanen, the film uses the story of Willa quit accurately to portray the oppression of women within the fundamentalist Christian traditions that were still very powerful at the time, while at the same time portraying Rachel as an effective figure of feminine resistance to these traditions. As Laamanen puts it, Night of the Hunter

“undermines the patriarchal status-quo of 1950s’ fundamentalist Christianity, explicitly depicting the religious corruption and violence of the masculine hierarchy of fundamentalism. Through a masterful use of film form and sound, the film subverts patriarchal paradigms of both classical cinema and fundamentalist Christianity, giving women a voice to stand up against male oppression through its portrayal of Miz Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).”

 Of course, Rachel herself is a rather Christian figure, but she represents a sort of alternative Christianity, a kinder and gentler and more feminine form than the one that has generally been prevalent among fundamentalist Christians in America a least since the 1920s. When Powell arrives at Rachel’s farm seeking John and Pearl (and the doll stuffed with all that loot), he is driven off by Rachel at gunpoint. He then returns at night, then lurks outside the farmhouse, ominously singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which in his hands becomes a sort of harbinger of murder. Suddenly, Rachel—sitting in her rocker, shotgun across her lap—starts to respond with an alternative version that inserts the name of Jesus,[5] clearly suggesting an opposed form of Christianity based on love, rather than the hate embodied by Powell.

Rachel, though, is no pacifist, and when Powell attempts to break into the house to attack the children, she shoots and wounds him with her shotgun, sending him yelping and scampering out to the barn in a moment that verges on slapstick comedy. Many commentators have found this moment of levity to be out of place in such a dark film, but Laughton apparently felt it was needed to help lighten the tension, thus avoiding making the film too dark. Such moments also help to undermine Powell’s character, making clear the ultimate weakness and cowardice that underlie his position.

In taking on Rachel, Powell not only quite literally brings a knife to a gunfight but also takes on an equally allegorical figure, but one who represents something larger and stronger than what he represents. In the Old Testament, Rachel is a very matriarchal figure, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, the progenitors of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. In The Night of the Hunter, however,Rachel serves as far more than a standard-bearer for an alternative, less patriarchal form of Christianity. She is essentially a mythical figure of feminine strength, representing energies that derive from traditions that are, in fact, much older than Christianity. At times, in fact, she serves almost as a reversal of Christianity. In one key scene at the end of the film, for example, she and the children are celebrating Christmas, which certainly seems a pretty ordinary Christian thing to do. But Rachel’s singling out of the teenage girl Ruby (Gloria Castillo) for special generosity (after the girl had fallen prey to the seductions of Powell) is an act of Christian charity and forgiveness that stands in stark contrast to the kind of religion purveyed by Powell. On the other hand, this celebration of the most holy of Christian holidays is also punctuated by a possible moment of subtle subversion in which a grateful John presents Rachel with a hastily wrapped apple as a Christmas gift, subverting one of the most misogynist elements of the Christmas tradition, the notion that human sin was initiated when a woman tempted a man to break the law of god by enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit, conventionally described as an apple. In this case, that proess is reversed: an apple is offered to a woman, but with benevolent and grateful intent.

In short, while it is easy to be dazzled by the technical brilliance of The Night of the Hunter, this is still a film that has a great deal to say, some of which is quite specifically political. It reminds viewers of the then-recent history of the Great Depression, conveying a warning even in the twenty-first century of the possible negative effects of a capitalist system prone to abuse by the greedy and the powerful. It also warns against religious or other forms of extremism that can be used to justify the most vicious of crimes. And it provides a number of messages about the misogyny and possible violence that are embedded in any patriarchal system. Granted,all of the film’s thematic material is overshadowed by its considerable artistry, but it is also the case that this artistry helps to reinforce the film’s content. Meanwhile, the technical achievement of the film is especially impressive when one recalls that this was a low-budget film made by a first-time director. Yet this film makes impressive use of the full range of resources of cinema as a medium, combining set design, acting, lighting, camerawork, and music in ways that allow each to reinforce all of the others, while at the same time supporting the film’s narrative and themes. It uses a wide array of technical devices—such as helicopter shots and underwater shots—that was quite unusual for the time, especially in a production with such a modest budget. It is in many ways a key noir film, even if it also deviates from the usual conventions of film noir in a number of ways—partly because it draws upon other genres as well, especially horror.

WORKS CITED

Callow, Simon. The Night of the Hunter. British Film Institute, 2000.

Jones, Preston Neal. Heaven and Hell to Play with: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. Limelight, 2004.

Laamanen, Carl. “Preaching in the Darkness: The Night of the Hunter’s Subversion of Patriarchal Christianity and Classical Cinema.” Journal of Religion & Film 18.1, Article 46. Available at: http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol18/iss1/46.

Newland, Christina Marie. “Archetypes of the Southern Gothic: The Night of the

Hunter and Killer Joe.” Film Matters (Spring 2014): 33–38.

NOTES


[1] Despite being so extreme, though, Powell has a strong basis in reality. The Night of the Hunter is based on the 1953 novel of the same title by Davis Grubb, using a screenplay adapted by James Agee. But the novel itself was based on the real-life story of one Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in the small city of Clarksburg, West Virginia.

[2] This flora prominently features the fronds of a willow tree that have dipped into the water. These willow fronds thus “rhyme” with the murdered Willa, in one of the film’s many artistic touches.

[3] It was, in fact, Whale, who initially introduced Laughton to Paul Gregory, the producer of The Night of the Hunter (Jones 25).

[4] Powell is especially partial to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn from 1887 that ironically focuses on the theme of the peace and safety that comes with belief in the Lord. It does not, tellingly, mention Jesus.

[5] This version was not invented for the film, but in fact had been used for some time in some American churches.