"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 2, 2012

"Night of the Hunter" (1955) by Laughton (Film review)

A group of people justly disliked are preachers, especially the glossy and boisterous ones soiling your TV screen, working exclusively for their own bank account and duping the gullible masses. One very sinister specimen appears in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the only film directed by renowned actor Charles Laughton. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in his best performance ever) is a religious fanatic who has a problem with sex and therefore slaughters women. He has the words "Hate" and "Love" tattooed on his knuckles. He marries widows and then does away with them, not because he wants to steal their money, o no, he is just helping God (people who think so of themselves are the most dangerous breed on earth), after all women are bad because they arouse men's carnal instincts. The always effective police have arrested him, for car theft of all things, while the bodies of his widows are lying around. In prison he shares a cell with a condemned murderer who talks in his sleep about $10,000 he stole and has hidden. Well, when Powell leaves jail there is a fresh widow to approach!

Harry Powell heads for Cresap's Landing in West Virginia to court the widow, Willa Harper (played by Shelley Winters, who was often cast as this type, see Lolita). He not only overwhelms the unseemly eager Willa with his scripture quoting and fake religiousness, but all the women of the small town are swooning at his feet. So this looks like a steal, after the marriage the weak Willa even swallows his blabbering about sex being sinful, but there is one problem: Willa has two kids, a nine-year old son Ben (Billy Chapin) and four-year old daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). They are the ones who know the place where the money is hidden (in Pearl's doll) and have sworn their father to keep quiet about it - it is Depression time and the money is meant to help them in the future get a start in life. The psychology of the children is done very well, Ben is intelligent and in fact the only one in the whole town who sees through the false preacher, while Pearl on the contrary almost allows herself to be persuaded. When Willa finds Harry out putting pressure on Pearl to reveal the place where the money is hidden, he decides it is time to kill her since the secret is out. Resigned to her fate, she dies like a Biblical lamb.

Powell dumps Willa's car containing her body in the river and starts looking for the children. They are hiding in the cellar and there is an unforgettably eerie scene of Powell standing at the top of the stairs, calling out in his sweetest voice that he means no harm. Ben is not fooled and in the end manages to escape, pulling his little sister with him. They escape via the river, having boarded a small raft and what follows is a long, lyrical sequence of their trip, followed by the eyes of various night animals. Powell becomes the hunter who follows them on horseback.

The next morning they happen to land right next to the house of matriarch Miz Rachel Cooper (a radiant Lilian Gish), who is the embodiment of real faith, not of words but of action. She runs a boarding house for orphans and warmly receives Ben and Pearl in her fold. Of course, she protects them with her big shotgun when Powell appears, not a moment fooled by his oily talk. She even shoots him in his leg and calls in the state troopers to arrest him.

Laughton interestingly shows us the trial and what happens after that: the "good" citizens of Cresap's Landing who in the past swallowed Powell's honeyed words, now gather to lynch him, and he has to be smuggled out of the courthouse. There is nothing more dangerous than a mass of mindless people acting on their gut-feelings - even Harry Powell can't beat that - making populism the most dangerous form of politics.

Although there is an "end good, all good" conclusion to The Night of the Hunter, the message is that evil is abroad in the world and that children must bear its brunt. But, “they abide, they endure.”

Although made by an Englishman (the script was by Tennessee-bred James Agee), The Night of the Hunter is the ultimate American folk fable. This dark fairytale addresses three American obsessions: sex, money and religion - with a liberal admixture of fear. More than that, the film is full of unforgettable images of strong Gothic and noir quality: the body of Willa submerged in the river, her long hair tangled with weeds; the silhouette of Harry Powell on the nightly horizon, persuing the fleeing kids; the children's progress on their raft observed by frogs, owls and other creatures. You can be sure these images will keep haunting you for weeks after seeing the film!
Available from Criterion.