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.