For every other scene on this list, there are a whole group of scenes I can compare my choice to, but this one is different. It’s not a dream sequence, but it feels like a dream, and while it’s a chase sequence, it’s slow and drawn out. When you get down to it, there is no movie scene quite like the river scene from The Night of the Hunter.
After Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) murders their mother, John and Pearl finally make their escape down river. Harry chases them through the rushes but isn’t able to stop their boat. John and Pearl find themselves all alone on the river at night, surrounded only by nature. The combination of the way this scene is shot, the music, and the ambient sounds all lead to an amazing experience. It’s incredibly dreamlike, but it’s not an all-out nightmare. In fact, a lot of it is even soothing. The children know Harry Powell will try to find them, but for the moment they are safe.
Sort of like my #5 scene, this one creates a feeling unlike any other. We are completely enveloped in the world that director Charles Laughton creates. We hear frogs croaking, we take in the stars in the sky, we see the water sparkling. Laughton referred to Hunter as a “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale,” which I suppose is as good a description as any.
We get the best contrast of the soothing sort of feelings with the nightmarish ones when John and Pearl stay overnight in a barn. They see a shadow of a woman in a window (a brilliant choice that we never see her in full) angelically singing “Rest, little one, rest” to her baby literally, but also to the children symbolically.
John and Pearl are now at complete peace as they climb to the barn to sleep. A few hours though, John awakes and looks off into the distance to see Harry Powell, riding his horse and eerily singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The song about being “safe and secure from all alarms” creates an obvious contrast with John and Pearl’s present situation, and the a capella singing of Robert Mitchum is downright creepy over the dead silence of the night. The film perfectly captures that feeling of being a kid and waking up startled in the middle of the night, whether from stress or a bad dream.
There’s a grandness to the whole thing, as we’re often given wide shots of nature, and oftentimes characters are not in the shot at all. Even so, it’s an incredibly personal scene, and we feel like we are in the position of the characters. We feel every single emotion that runs through them, from fear to peace to urgency. It’s a scene that could have very easily been rushed in favor of more plot or something conventional, but instead we got one of the most beautiful and unique film scenes of all time. If you love The Night of the Hunter, I have talked more about it here in my first What Makes It Great?
We’re getting down to it now, and I’ll be taking a look at my penultimate scene tomorrow.