Take 92: Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter, released in 1955, directed by Charles Laughton, and number 92 on this list, is billed as a horror classic, so it was appropriate for me to watch the film close to the spookiest day of the year. This was yet another movie I had never seen, or even heard of, before this project. Now, I see it’s fingerprints on films I know and love from across many genres. The star of the film is the villain Preacher Harry Powell, played by the incomparable Robert Mitchum, who is brilliant and haunting in the role. His performance brought many others to mind. He had the confused and particularly unforgettable fervor and self justification of Paul Dano as Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood combined with cool callousness of Javier Bardem playing Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

The story begins with a father who outruns the police, stashes cash in his daughter’s doll, and compels his children, particularly the older boy, to never tell anyone, not even their mother where it’s hidden. The father knows he will be hung but tells the boy, John, that when he’s grown he’ll get to keep the money for himself. The cops arrive and haul off the father, who runs into the Preacher in his prison cell. After the father is hung and the Preacher is released from jail, he tracks down his cellmate’s family farm, intent on seducing the widow and digging up the cash.

What follows is a psychological war between a murderous, hyper religious, serial killer, and a parentified, terrified, child carrying a burden he can’t understand. These twisted, damaged, personas collide with a force that neither could have expected. In likely the most enduring scene of the film, Powell delivers a speech explaining his hallmark tattooed knuckles, HATE on the left hand and LOVE on the right. He relishes the tale of evil and good, and the eternal struggle between those extremes. Part of what Mitchum brings to the performance that makes it so stirring is an evocation of a misplaced self-righteous confidence that makes certain “men who commune with god” so dangerous.

In Powell’s case there are repeated examples of his hatred of female sexuality. Early on we see him squirming at a show with live naked girls. We learn his typical criminal pattern includes seducing a widow and killing her for the inheritance. He justifies this behavior, presumably, because by falling prey to his wickedness they reveal their own sinful nature. Take, for example, the scene after he pulls his trickery on Willa Harper (Shelly Winters) on their wedding night:

Rev. Harry Powell : I think it’s time we made one thing perfectly clear, Willa. Marriage to me represents the blending of two spirits in the sight of Heaven. Get up, Willa.

Willa Harper : Harry, what…?

Rev. Harry Powell: Get up. Now go look at yourself yonder in that mirror. Do as I say. Look at yourself. What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin’ children. It was not meant for the lust of men! Do you want more children, Willa?

This hall pass for depravity is self issued, and results in a man who is endowed with the belief of moral infallibility — which makes him the perfect hunter of small children.

These poor kids are stuck in a nightmare. When their father robbed the bank and killed two people, it appears he did it in an effort to save them from a life of poverty — evidently not realizing that the decision would financially destitute their mother and result in the children becoming social outcasts and dodging taunts about his hanging. Ben especially suffers from the burden of his last promise to his dad to keep the money hidden, his promise to protect his sister, and the introduction of a vicious new father figure. Ben maintains his promise to his dad in every imaginable respect, even when haunted by the relentless preacher. His sister Pearl is eager to give it up, but loyal enough to her brother to withstand the onslaught of pressure from Powell to reveal the hidden location of the cash.

Forty years after The Night of the Hunter was released there was a swell of movies about divorced parents and the challenges of blended families, this movie is the horror version of that familial transition. Those films often tried to show the struggle of accepting a new parent figure through the lens of struggle but eventual embrace — and usually there’s at least a bit of a comedic angle. The Night of the Hunter pushes the emotional dial to the other extreme, choosing instead to exploit the fear and anxiety that accompanies welcoming a new family member or shouldering the burden of a parent’s decision. For children welcoming a new parent figure, there’s a natural confusion over who is a protector and who is a threat. For the children in this film particularly, they must question every parent figure they have: Powell is deranged and unsubtle in his menace, their mother invited Powell into their home, and their father hung a cash stuffed albatross around their necks and labelled it a gift.

The hero of this film is an old woman who discovers the children on her river bank and incorporates them into her makeshift orphanage. She fights off the devilish hunter, Powell, while eloquently advocating for the LOVE right hand’s dominance over the EVIL left hand. At the end, when Ben sees the Preacher in the cuffs of the policeman, he throws the money over him and wails “It’s too much!” as the confusion over who will hurt him and who will protect him finally bubbles beyond his controlled restraint. At this point, after a slowly creeping rise in tension, this release of the pressure valve works magnificently.

This film is packed with elements that continue to be carbon copied by horror films for years after its release: a scary basement, shadows traipsing across the wall, a creepy song, a threatening doll. All of those components create a memorable and taut atmosphere that hangs heavy with suspense, and quite honestly, sadness. And this moment, where Ben finally lets go, is the crescendo — a child releasing the burden of his parents, freed from the demons of his upbringing.



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Jessie McAskill

Jessie McAskill

Watching movies and writing essays.