Last weekend we watched Night of the Hunter (1955, directed by Charles Laughton) with our older kids. Some of them didn’t get it, and one was disappointed that it wasn’t “live action”—I guess he meant color? Anyway, this is a black and white movie, and even though I’ve seen it before, it blew my mind; and some of the kids haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
A synopsis: A young father is fed up with worrying about whether his family will survive the Depression, so he robs a bank, killing two people. With the police on their way, he thrusts the money at his young son John, and swears him and his little sister Pearl to secrecy about where it is hidden—hiding it even from their mother (Shelley Winters as the fatally pliable Willa Harper). The boy sees his father knocked to the ground and dragged away to jail.
Meanwhile, a preternaturally sinister Robert Mitchum as the Rev. Harry Powell rolls into town to preach “the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.” He’s on the prowl for another young widow with money. He’s arrested for car theft, and happens to bunk with the father, who’s awaiting execution.
The father is hanged, the preacher is released, and he heads straight for the town where the new widow lives with John and Pearl. He proceeds to charm and beguile every last resident, covering the naked evil in his heart with a dreadfully charismatic imitation of piety.
Despite my son’s grousing, this movie had to be in black and white. Exquisitely framed, it makes constant thematic use of light and shadow, day and night, indoor and outdoor scenes. The time of day is never in question, and it always means something: the stark noon of the children’s Golgatha as their classmates taunt them with an execution song; the unsleeping vigil of the preacher silhouetted against the sky (John wonders, “Don’t he never sleep?”), so different from the faith-filled vigil of the children’s savior, Rachel (Lillian Gish), rocking on the porch with a shotgun in her lap. Sleeplessness is for two kinds: the hunter, and the prey. Lights picks out the innocent ones; shadows starkly define the shape of evil as it searches and searches.
The acting, especially that of the children, is ahead of its time. The delicacy of emotion on young John’s face, and even the moment when foolish little Pearl realizes that her beloved stepdaddy is evil—these are overwhelming. So many vulnerable faces.
And here’s something you won’t see every day: The movie deals masterfully with the various ways that people distort Christianity—the lies people believe about love. There is the ice cream parlor matron, Icey Spoon, whose bitter dismissal of married love (“I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning”) contrasts poisonously with the sugary adulation she lavishes on the preacher, pushing Willa into his grasp.
There is Willa herself, who is willing to discard her healthy wifely affections for a hysterical mysogynistic fanaticism: “My whole body’s just a-quiverin’ with cleanness!” She even seems to know, at the last minute, that her children are in danger, but placidly awaits her fate, mistaking a deadly docility for Christian obedience.
There is poor Ruby, the orphaned teenager so achingly hungry for love that she has no will. There is the drained old woman doling out raw potatoes to the young drifters who turn up at her door, feeding them as she must, but driving them away in weary disgust with suffering.
And then there is Rachel, the rock-hard foster mother of the world, discarded by her own biological children, and on a rampage to clean, protect, teach and love any other child that God sends to her door. The Bible stories she teaches are always about the children in her care.
And of course Harry Powell himself. What is he really after? He doesn’t seem to be rich, despite his long and lucrative career of deadly religious seduction. He charms the country folk with a hokey pantomime of the triumph of LOVE over HATE (tattooed on his fingers)—but the diseased nature of his true ardor is deeper than a love of money: We see his killing knife come erect at a burlesque show, as he contemplates ridding God’s world of another “lacy,” “perfume-smelling” “thing with curly hair.” Worse than a love of money, worse than a hatred of women, he believes with all his heart that death is the work of God. His only regret is that “There’s too many of them—I can’t kill the whole world!”
And yes, he loses in the end.
So! Go see this movie. There is not a wasted scene, not a careless line of dialogue, not an ounce of sloppiness in the entire film. I would recommend it for viewers over the age of 10. While no explicit sex or violence are shown on screen, the sense of menace, corruption and loneliness may be overwhelming for more sensitive viewers—although the ending is satisfying and full of hope. It’s an excellent movie as a story and as a visual treat, and as a spark for discussions about love and its abusers.
Oh, I didn’t even have time to talk about the songs! Well, you’ll have to watch it for yourself.