- Year: 1955
- Director: Charles Laughton
- Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Welcome to my new series, What Makes It Great, where I’ll sporadically be doing in-depth analysis of old and new classics. The Night of the Hunter is a great place to start, because it is one of those films that can be watched over and over again with the guarantee of always finding something new. As with all movies in this series, it is impossible to fully analyze a film’s greatness without going into spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by acclaimed actor Charles Laughton. So wait, after directing a thrilling and visually striking film, he never made another movie? Yeah, because it flopped. Seriously.
Alright, it kind of makes sense that not everyone “got” this film in 1955. Hunter is a very unique film in both its visual style and message, and it was way ahead of its time. It’s what I like to call a Marty McFly movie—”I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” Spike Lee, The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and others have named it as a major influence, with the first two having direct shout-outs in their films—the famous love/hate tattoos in Do the Right Thing and the drowned car in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
As a Horror Film
What genre does The Night of the Hunter fall under? Arguably, it doesn’t matter, as many great films blend genres wonderfully, but Hunter is often considered a film noir. While visually it does borrow from film noir (or arguably both borrow from German expressionism), the story itself is rural rather than urban, follows the plight of children, has no complicated mystery or femme fatale, and has a happy ending. Honestly, it’s more of a horror film.
For me, there are two things that the best horror movies do, besides the typical good story, thematic music, etc. First of all, the mundane should be made scary. Things that should be completely safe and even comforting are suddenly the most terrifying thing in the film—taking a shower in Psycho, eating dinner in Alien, even a children’s book in The Babadook. The Night of the Hunter manages to do this with a hymn of all things. There are few creepier images in film than a shadowy Robert Mitchum riding a horse, singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in his deep, resonant voice.
The other thing that horror movies require to be scary is for our heroes to be vulnerable. Here, we have very young children on their own, surrounded by adults who are of no help whatsoever (until the end). The whole thing feels like a dream from the opening seconds, with the starry background and the haunting lullaby that plays over the opening credits. When Harry Powell first stands outside the Harper home, his shadow completely overtakes the room where John and Pearl are trying to sleep. The scene where Pearl and John escape downriver is completely transcendental, one of the most beautiful ever put to film. When they stay in a barn overnight, believing themselves to be temporarily safe, and they hear that eerie cry of “Leaning, Leaning, safe and secure from all alarms” and then see Harry Powell in the distance, it takes us back to the primal fears we all had as children. Director Charles Laughton tapped into something basic here, something childlike that is fear at its most raw.
Religion, Sex, and the Patriarchy
Maybe America wasn’t ready for a movie about a religious serial killer in 1955. Like Se7en 40 years later (and I promise no more spoilers on that one), the killer is not hiding behind religion, but rather believes he is doing the will of God. That is so much scarier than merely someone pretending to be a man of God. The scene where Harry Powell talks to God clearly shows that he truly believes God wants him to kill women and blesses him with money to continue it.
In an early scene, Harry visits a burlesque show. As he watches the performance, his knife seamlessly switches on in a very phallic manner. At first, it comes off as a bit of a joke, but the more you think about it, it’s an incredibly complex image that sums up Harry Powell completely—his arousal is mixed with his violent tendencies. He believes that women like this ought to be punished, but he is undoubtedly turned on as well. He’s blaming someone else for his own actions. Mitchum’s acting is perfect in this scene, especially in the post-knife flip satisfied expression he gives while looking towards heaven.
Harry is arrested for stealing a car, and ends up in jail with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who committed murder and stole nearly $10,000 to provide for his family. Of course, Harry sees this meet-up as a sign from God.
The community where the Harpers live is a perfect location for Harry, because almost everyone falls for his tricks right away. This is a town where both the husbands and wives have a very twisted and sexist view of marriage. Icey Spoon, the appropriately-named ice cream shop owner, tries to convince Willa Harper that she needs to get over her recently-executed husband and move on. Icey doesn’t care about Willa grieving for her dead husband, or even marrying for love, but rather having a new father for the kids immediately. She then goes on about how women shouldn’t enjoy sex (In front of her husband!), and how when she has sex with her husband Walt, she just thinks about canning.
Then there’s the creepy way the husbands address their wives as “Mother.” The first time we see this happen, the local executioner is talking to his wife with the children in the next room. They are sleeping, so it wouldn’t make too much sense, but it could perhaps be explained away. Walt Spoon, however, constantly refers to Icey as “Mother” even though we don’t see or hear about their children at all. The husbands see their wives as no more than the role of a mother. It makes sense that a town as patriarchal as this would fall for Harry Powell, who is essentially the patriarchy taken to a murderous level. When Willa prepares to get into bed with Harry on their wedding night, he tells her that her body is only for “begetting children” and “not for the lust of men.”
The wedding night scene ends with Willa’s chilling prayer, “Help me to get clean so I can be what Harry wants me to be.” She doesn’t ask God to help her be what God wants her to be, but what her husband Harry wants her to be. She is not following a religion where God is the highest power, but where Harry Powell is.
In the scene following, Willa has become exactly what Harry wants her to be. At a fiery (very, very fiery) “revival” service, Willa blames herself for her dead husband’s transgressions, saying that if she hadn’t asked him for makeup and perfume, he wouldn’t have needed to commit crimes to provide for her.
Harry’s power over Willa culminates in the scene where he kills her. Willa is lying on the bed, talking but otherwise motionless, having so little power of her own left. She tells Harry she knows that Ben couldn’t have told him where the money was. Harry slaps her, but she stays in the bed, saying that she knows he doesn’t care about the money anyway. Harry walks over and raises his hand toward heaven. Note how the high ceiling and shadows make their bedroom look like a church.
The score is a dual between a romantic waltz and a dark brooding theme, and the contrast of dark and light just makes this scene all the more harrowing. As Harry raises his knife to kill Willa as she lies on the bed, the visuals remind us of a biblical sacrifice. Willa knows what is happening, and the script even describes her as having “the ecstasy of a martyr.”
When the children finally do escape downriver, they eventually end up at the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the only adult in the whole film who is actually helpful. Rachel is an independent woman, probably married in the past as a son is mentioned, but on her own now as a foster parent. It would have been so easy to have a movie about a murderous preacher be anti-religion, but it’s not at all. Rachel is a Christian, an actual one without a twisted misogynistic outlook, who shows the children how it can be done right.
When Harry Powell finds her home and claims the children are his, she doesn’t fall for it. When he comes back that night and starts with his “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,” she responds right back with “Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus.” His is a vague, bizarre interpretation of religion, but hers is a solid faith.
After this, Harry Powell is really not a a threat at all. Honestly, from a story-telling perspective, the movie could have ended after this scene, but I understand the Hays Code at the time wanted definite proof that the villain would be punished. At least we get the great scene where Harry is arrested, and John falls on his knees and throws the money, begging the police to stop, finally letting go of the feelings he wanted to release when his father was arrested. Ben Harper had put such a burden on his young son that John never had a chance to grieve for his own father.
The Night of the Hunter is a film unlike any other, from the performances to the story and themes to the amazing score by Walter Schumann. It makes the audience feel all the danger the children are in, often feeling like a nightmare, but one with such beautiful imagery you can’t look away. It is truly a shame Charles Laughton never got to direct another film.