The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Written by James Agee
Directed by Charles Laughton
Of my thirty-nine years on this earth, the last thirty-fours (sans one) have been lived in the American South, specifically Tennessee. The American South is a complex region, the hub of an insurrection that led to the Civil War. The place where slavery festered and even upon its dissolution, its legacy poisoned any possibility of a greater sense of community to the present day. Jim Crow was born here. The American South is a “Christ-haunted landscape,” as author Flannery O’Connor once said, words that could not be truer. Churches pop up so that one city block is crammed full with them. A drive through the country will guarantee passing by at least half a dozen. History and Religion bleed through the trunks of the trees and up through the lawns. These are Visions of the American South.
The Night of the Hunter takes us back to Depression Era West Virginia. Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a desperate father who refuses to allow his children to suffer during this time, robs a bank, killing two men. Ben reaches his home before the police catch up with him and hides the cash inside the doll of his daughter Pearl, pledging his son to promise never to reveal the location. Ben is sent to the penitentiary, where he waits to be hung until dead. Ben’s cellmate is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a traveling preacher who preys on widows, murdering them and taking their wealth. The authorities don’t know this, and Powell was picked up for driving a stolen car.
Powell is desperate to discover where Ben has hidden the money and gets some hints during the man’s dreaming murmurs. Ben is killed, and Powell is released, and the Reverend heads to Harper’s home. Powell quickly goes about wooing Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters), claiming to be a former guard at the prison who felt sympathy for the Harpers. John doesn’t trust Powell from the get-go, and Pearl just seems confused. The man’s nefarious intent begins to show itself, and the children are thrust into a nightmarish odyssey across the Southern landscape as the film evokes the imagery of fairy tales.
The Night of the Hunter is an American masterpiece. At the close, my first thought was how powerful my emotions became in the second half of the film. There is a thread of profound melancholy woven through the narrative evoking your deepest sympathies for these children. During their river journey, the atmosphere is ratcheted up with stylistic deep-focus cinematography and evocative music. This was when I was the most overcome with sadness, these children had lost everything and were now cast out into a dark, foreboding world. The three adults in their daily lives fail to protect them before they set out, succumbing to alcohol, delusion, and haughtiness. Despite this taking place in the Depression, the sentiments of cold adults towards children feel all too relevant.
Charles Laughton, an actor by trade (Witness for the Prosecution, Spartacus), shows a deft hand with scene composition, particularly lighting. He uses shadows to accentuate scenes, giving an otherworldly quality to some scenes. He directs Robert Mitchum to display an air of sexual menace that creates complexity in the Reverend. Powell is obsessed with wielding the word of God like a hammer and has sexual hangups, refusing to consummate his marriage with Willa. Yet he uses his natural charisma to lure people into his trust.
Operating at Powell’s mirror is Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish), the eventual angel who saves the children. She is also profoundly religious but doesn’t see it as a cudgel. Cooper specializes in taking children who are orphaned or whose parents cannot care for them on their own. When one of her charges admits to sneaking away and becoming intimate with teenage boys, Mrs. Cooper does not shame her but states she understand the girl is seeking the love she never had and expresses a will to help her. The clash between Powell and Cooper is short but powerful, underlying the picture’s mythic fairy tale qualities. The Night of the Hunter captures the spiritual power in the Southern landscape and the duality that makes it such a complex topic to present in movies.