‘Night of the Hunter’ Is the Stuff of Nightmares: Movie’s Scary Sojourn Examines Good vs. Evil

FILM REVIEW: Classic film’s madman chases two little children across bleak black-and-white landscape.

Robert Mitchum stars in 'Night of the Hunter.'
Robert Mitchum stars in 'Night of the Hunter.' (photo: Screenshots / Public Domain)

If Flannery O’Connor wrote screenplays, she would have written something like the 1955 Southern Gothic tale Night of the Hunter. Modern viewers of this film can go on a scary sojourn of discovery.

What they will find is both disturbing, inspiring and, yes, even spiritual. Not exactly what one would expect from a film that has, at its core, the story of a psychopathic serial killer chasing two small children across the Deep South during the Great Depression.

The film has many unique qualities. It is the only film ever directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton. James Agee, a film critic, poet, short fiction writer and someone who died way before his time, wrote the screenplay. The only other screenplay attributed to Agee was The African Queen (what a duo of credits!). 

The singular detour Night of the Hunter makes, though, is having its biggest star in the film play the villain, not the hero. A critic once asked James Stewart if he ever got tired of always playing “Jimmy Stewart.” Stewart’s quick retort was, “Who do you want me to be? Cary Grant?” So, for a star of the magnitude of Robert Mitchum to take on the role of Harry Powell, a sinister killer with a homespun preacher fetish, was shocking then — as it still is. 

His character, just like the devil himself, can quote Scripture at the drop of his black hat. He is charming as a given situation requires him to be and diabolically savage when he has the intention. Mitchum once said, “I have two acting styles: with and without a horse.” Though he was quick to demean his acting skills, he took on the role of psycho Powell in a way Marlon Brando would have envied.

This inverted “man of God” descends like an angel of death upon a widow and her two children, a boy of about 10 and his little sister, who is maybe 5. The boy and girl know a secret their recently executed bank-robbing father told them — a secret Powell will kill to uncover. Knowing this makes his chase of these two little children across the bleak black-and-white landscape the stuff of nightmares. 

It sounds like a rudimentary melodrama, and in many ways it is. But the performances of not only the stars of the film but the supporting cast and the direction of Laughton are transforming. Moviemaking, regardless of the era, is a mix of talent, artistry and chemistry between those on both sides of a camera. These are sometimes-combustible elements, and how well they are co-mingled makes the difference between a triumph and a debacle. 

Night of the Hunter may have had the budget constraints of a “B” movie production, but Laughton and his cinematographer turn that obstacle into an explicit advantage, with stunning images, monstrous shadows that are bigger than life, and set construction that harkened back to the silent movie days of German Expressionism — as surprising as that would be to Mitchum. 

That a classically trained British actor who never directed a film in his life would produce such a visual and authentic tableau of Americana is that special kind of movie alchemy in action. Sadly, Laughton, who was a man with a very fragile sense of self, was so traumatized by the tepid reviews the film initially received that he never directed another film. As the years passed, Night of the Hunter was rediscovered; and if Laughton could have seen what people are saying about his film, he would have never stepped out of the director’s chair. 

The film works on so many diverse levels, and none so powerful as the examination it makes on good versus evil and how God can be perverted by the powerful and revealed in the weak. 

It is dangerous ground to mine for a vein of theological or spiritual profundity in a popular-culture product whose main objective is to provide the producers of such products a return on their investment and to help movie theaters sell popcorn. And sometimes a movie is just a movie. 

Unlike Flannery O’Connor, screen writer Agee had a troubled history with his Catholic faith. Yet so much of it is found in the work he left behind, especially in Night of the Hunter. 

Pearl, the little sister, is a total innocent. Her older brother, John, though, understands more than a 10-year-old boy should have to — and the result, as he leads and protects his little sister on a mad chase with the looming menace of Mitchum’s Powell ever present, is his loss of faith. 

And when all seems lost, the children’s salvation comes in an unexpected, very New Testament form. John and Pearl think they need a knight in armor; what they get is a frail old woman with a switch and short fuse. John is repelled at first because the old woman quotes from the same book the murderous villain uses. The legendary silent-screen star Lilian Gish plays the Bible-believing Mrs. Cooper. As hard as she appears on the outside, she is vulnerable and deeply faithful on the inside. Her spiritual radar fixes on John, who she realizes is having a crisis of faith just as dangerous as the physical danger he and his sister are in. 

Mrs. Cooper is old and as physically unimposing as Powell is hulking and powerful. But Mrs. Cooper has something Powell does not. He possesses a perverted spirituality, one of his own divination and one to suit his bloodlust. Mrs. Cooper has an authentic faith in God. She also has a double-barreled, 12-gage shotgun, which helps even the playing field.

Just as the devil who felt Jesus’ presence and exited the possessed, Powell senses this power residing in Mrs. Cooper — even when he sees his “prize,” John and Pearl, almost within his grasp.

In one of my favorite scenes in this film, John and Pearl have taken refuge in an abandoned hayloft. Pearl sleeps the sleep of the innocent, and John stands guard over her. He hears Powell off in the distance singing a gospel song. The boy knows the song is for God but is being used by a devilish man: “Don’t he ever sleep?” 

Like the devil, Powell never does seem to sleep — and like a modern Moses, John brings his sister into a promised land, saving his own soul in the process. 

I think Flannery O’Connor would have approved.