Silver Screen Standards: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Night of the Hunter (1955) is such a haunting and unusual film that I often wonder what else Charles Laughton might have produced had he directed any more movies, but if he was only going to direct once at least we got this picture to show for it. Laughton’s grim fairy tale of murder and madness in the Depression-era plays like a dark picture book, full of images that linger in the mind of the viewer long after the movie ends. Adapted from the 1953 Southern Gothic thriller by Davis Grubb, the film explores evil, loneliness, and courage in its story of two children pursued by a maniacal serial killer who wants the stolen money their father died to obtain for them. Striking performances from Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish provide the most memorable scenes, but young Billy Chapin holds the story together as John Harper, whose realistic responses to trauma contrast with the dreamlike scenery around him. The result is a movie that creeps into your psyche and stays there, just like those old stories about lost little children and the monsters who want to swallow them whole.
Classic movie fans don’t need an introduction to Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, or Charles Laughton, but the contributions of all three are surely enough to lure almost any film fanatic to The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum’s performance is deeply unnerving, a combination of real menace, delusion, and buffoonery that might seem unbelievable if it weren’t so horribly common in real life. Harry Powell has killed so many women he can’t keep count, and we understand from his twitchy knife hand that the killing is a compulsion that exists entirely outside his need for funds. He would kill women for nothing, but killing the ones who are lonely enough to marry him gives him the money to keep going.
His God is a monstrous version of the blood-soaked destroyer of the Old Testament, meting out hellfire and punishment on widows and children while vindicating the wrath of a tyrannical patriarch (the poet William Blake imagined this image of God as “Nobodaddy,” which makes a provocative comparison with “Daddy Powell,” too). Lillian Gish brings balance to this dark vision of God with her role as the stalwart Rachel Cooper, whose God is the protector of children like Moses, Jesus, and John Harper. Rachel is the nurturer whose love is unconditional, even to the hopelessly lovestruck Ruby. Kindness, comfort, and courage shine through her wise face in every scene; she is more than a match for the false prophet Harry Powell, which ought to give us all hope for the world.
Between them, we have Shelley Winters’ portrayal of the martyred Willa, a victim of Harry’s violence and greed but also of her community’s foolish devotion to patriarchal norms and gullibility. She loves her children in a helpless, paralyzed sort of way, but she’s incapable of fighting for them and lies down to await the knife like a sacrificial lamb, leaving John and Pearl to face Daddy Powell alone. Her good intentions, like those of the kindly but drunken Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), are useless in the struggle against real evil. Winters, however, invests her with a sense of quiet tragedy that attracts our sympathy, especially when contrasted with the despicable busybody Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden).
When I watched this movie with my husband recently, he commented on the ending and how long it was, going on well beyond the downfall of Harry Powell, but the extended denouement of The Night of the Hunter makes more sense when we consider that John Harper is really the protagonist of this story, although the adult stars get top billing, and this is not a noir film even if many of the classic noir elements are in play.
For most of the picture, John is being threatened, damaged, and traumatized while his innate courage and intelligence, as well as his devotion to Pearl, keep him in motion. He barely has time to sleep, much less process the horror of his situation or the scope of his losses. He’s too busy trying to keep himself and his sister alive. The arrest of Harry Powell doesn’t repair the damage done to John’s psyche; in fact, it reinforces that damage by making John repeat the horror of seeing his real father arrested at the beginning of the film. A noir story might have ended there, with fatal justice for Harry but a bleak endpoint for John. Instead, we get several more scenes in which John is slowly put back together as a person by Rachel Cooper’s love and protection. He is integrated into a functional, loving family, albeit one made of other displaced children taken into Rachel’s care. When Rachel faces the camera and tells us that little children abide, she is assuring us that John will be alright, and we need to hear that because otherwise, the story would be too dark to bear. It might not, in the real world, always be true, but we need to hear it in order to have hope, that saving grace that always lights our darkest times, and the sweet, beatific face of Lillian Gish compels us to believe her. The story ends there to tell us that good outlasts evil and that bad times don’t last forever, which is also how fairy tales tend to end, not just with the punishment of the wicked but the salvation and uplifting of the innocent.
If you’re interested in the inner workings of fairy tales, use The Night of the Hunter as a leaping off point for further studies with books like Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976) or even the poetry of Ann Sexton in her 1971 collection, Transformations. For more classic movies with fairy tale roots, try The Blue Bird (1940), Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, or The Red Shoes (1948), to name just a few. For a darker double feature with Robert Mitchum, follow up with Cape Fear (1962). The Night of the Hunter is available on a very handsome Blu-ray edition from Criterion Collection with a number of special features, including extensive outtakes and behind the scenes footage from Charles Laughton.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.