Night of the Hunter (1955)
Surprisingly enough, it was my mother who introduced this film to me when I was about nine years old.
I distinctly remember her becoming enrapt by the devious ploys and plans of the main antagonist, Reverend Harry Powell. As a child, his nefarious motives escaped me, but he was an imposing figure. Standing over six feet tall and with a charming demeanor, a booming-yet-soothing voice, and a penchant for a quiet and desperate sense of mayhem; Harry Powell was an unstoppable force to be reckoned. It was something that stayed with me for a while after seeing it. Also, despite having some Christian trappings, Night of the Hunter has some powerful Satanic reverberations running through it. Themes which resonate even more with me today.
The mastermind behind this movie is Charles Laughton, an acting legend who decided to try his hand at being behind the camera instead of in front. Unfortunately, Night of the Hunter was poorly received by critics and audiences alike during its initial release. This perceived failure led Laughton to never direct again. However, since then, it is being considered one of the greatest films of all time.
First and foremost was its love and admiration of children, holding them sacrosanct and something to be admired and cherished, not viewed as foolish and helpless. The two main characters, small children named John and Pearl Harper, are siblings who live with their widowed mother, Willa: A broken woman who is bereft with grief over the execution of her husband, Ben, hanged for the murder of two men. Ben was involved in a heist and with that, ten thousand dollars which he gave up to his son before his arrest; swearing to secrecy concerning the whereabouts of the stolen goods.
John is one tough little cookie. He is perfectly exemplifying the admonition of responsibility to the responsible. John loved his father and took the oath of secrecy, and with true gallantry, John kept it. Upon meeting the pernicious preacher for the first time, he immediately is keen to his true motives and is instantly distrustful of him. The pastor, being the sweet talker he is, ends up marrying the children’s mother but instead of being a caring and kind husband, he is berating, abusive, and scornful of her sexual desires and views her as only a means to an end to gain access to the stolen money.
Misogyny is the driving force behind Pastor Dowell’s murder and possible schizophrenia. He continuously “talks” to God, whom he believes instructs him to marry and then murder women and take whatever money they have from them. His scorn for the female form is apparent from the outset where he states, “Hate of perfumed things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” While this smug monologue is going on, he is dourly watching a rather tawdry burlesque show with other men whose eyes gleam with desire. Unlike the crazed preacher, these men are not inhibiting their animal instincts when it comes to looking for a good time; the only one suffering from hypocritical self-deceit is him. Harry Powell hates the power women wield over men and wants to annihilate them for it. What brutality doesn’t this life-hating, self-proclaimed “holy man” partake?
After killing their mother (surprise, surprise) John and Pearl escape their small town in Depression Era West Virginia and escape upstream on a boat with the money in hand. The preacher is hot on their trail the entire time, like a child killing apparition; the boogeyman personified. So John and Pearl have to learn quick! Because they are unhampered by indoctrination, their pure instincts as unfettered critters allow them to thwart him every step of the way. Their little hearts exemplify the axiom of self-preservation being the highest law.
The movie also is, albeit subtly, distrusting of organized Christianity; poking at its repression, child abuse, misogyny, and overall violence with a semi-sharp stick. Reverend Harry Powell himself even states that the Bible is “full of killings,” as if saying that the ‘book of lies’ is a manuscript for the (as Magus Peter H. Gilmore has stated) murderous madness of theism. Another character, Uncle Birdie, is leery of religion, saying that he “never was one for preachers myself.” These inflammatory aspects took guts for the director, considering the time when Night of the Hunter came out.
Despite being a thriller set in the Depression Era countryside, Night of the Hunter feels more like a noir, expressionist film than anything else. Replete with weird angled shots, grand and full scopes, and spooky-ominous use of shadows, this movie has a striking and scary vibe throughout. The entire production is more akin to a work of Fritz Lang. Moreover, it is all the more atmospheric because it broke film making norms.
I could laud its praises more, but I think the film should speak for itself. A poorly received film at the time of release has resurrected itself as a bonafide classic in the modern era.
[- D.A. Marshall]
Movie on IMDB