The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Well-known actor Charles Laughton directed only one film. One might be hard-pressed to find a better film from one who had directed so little. Night of the Hunter centers its narrative on a couple of fatherless and kids and a shady preacher who gets in good with widows for their money. When the preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), learns that recently widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) has some cash, he wastes no time in tracking her down and marrying her. But that’s only the beginning, for it’s actually the two children who have been entrusted with the cash from their bank-robbing father. The children eventually take off down river, and end up on the farm of a Ms. Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish), who makes a habit of taking in orphans. She takes in John and Pearl, washes and clothes them, feeds them well, and reads them Bible stories. All of this leads up to a final showdown between the false prophet and the true.A couple of elements stand out from this viewing: First, we have different versions of religion, and Christianity in particular, presented to us. From the very beginning of the film, we get dialogue about false prophets, and how you can know they are actually true by their fruit. It is the actions we have to watch – all of them. And Mitchum’s preacher does quite a bit of sermonizing about right and wrong, but he does little. Ms. Cooper, on the other hand, is virtually all action, and when she does speak, the speech points toward God and the Scriptures. One other note here: I find it interesting that all through the film, Powell talks about religion, and even sings a couple of hymns, but never invokes the name of Christ. Cooper, however, invokes not only the name of Christ, but also Moses in her short part. Hers is a religion of action that is tied to real historical events. Powell’s is religion of words that is tied to his own experience.

Secondly, the portrayal of fanaticism is chilling. As we enter the film, we have a definite perspective on Powell, and we are rightly suspicious of him. But of all the others in the town, personified in the Spoons, we have a more positive view. They appear to be kind people, who care about the widow and her children. They go to church picnics, sing hymns, and bring over food for the hurting family. However, theirs is also a religion of their own experience, and as long as they hear things about how bad all the world is out there, beyond their cute little town, they are on board. Powell gives them what they want to hear, and they are taken in by him. And these are the same people who by the end of the film, turn against Powell in a disturbing display of a mob mentality. Not only that, but Powell and the townspeople have something else in common: they both react to evil in the same way – they are appalled by it, pushing away from them anyone who might happen to be caught up in it. Contrast this with Ms. Cooper, who when confronted with an evil act by one of her orphans, is filled with compassion, and works to solve the problem as it now stands. The contrasts all through this film are strong.

This is one of the more disturbing films I love. Both times I have sat down with it (and more so with the second), I was gripped by the plight of the fatherless family. I am appalled by the actions of the townspeople. And I am moved by the portrayal of true Christianity in contrast to false. You will know them by their works, indeed.

4 thoughts on “The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. That was my first Robert Mitchum film. Need I say I became an immediate fan? And yes, a very good movie too across the board.

  2. My first Mitchum too, I think. I may have seen him in Jarmusch’s Dead Man before that, I’m not sure. Glad to hear from you, Brian.

  3. I recently watched this film and my reaction is similarly positive. First, I love the use of the “hate” and “hate” tatooes. Although they show up prominently in only a couple of scenes, they are used nicely to show the use of Christian lingo and imagery to establish a context for gaining confidence. As the film unfolds, even Powell seems to lose interest in telling the story of love and hate. I love the subtle way this is done.

    I love the Ms. Cooper character. Her faith has made a difference in the way she lives, she is a true Christian hero. Perhaps it is the complexity of her character which makes the others appear so flat and uninteresting. So there is a con-man who is able to take advantage of gullible “Chrstians.” Have we never seen that before? (Yes, I understand that this film predates most of what we have seen so don’t take my criticism too harshly.)

    On the other hand, it is chilling to see the transition in the townspeople. Having seen similar fickleness in professing Christians and, more than I would like to admit, even in me, the ending of the film has a profound and lasting impact.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Glad you saw it. The film only continues to grow in my estimation. Thanks for bringing the word ‘fickle’ into the mix. It is definitely the right move here. Fickleness is something I am noticing more often in people these days – but only because it’s easier for me to see it in them than in myself. Not because I have less fickleness, but because I prefer not to see it.

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