93 min. Paul Gregory Productions.  Based on the novel of the same title by David Grubb.  Adapted for the screen by James Agee (but really by Laughton, as any review will tell you).  Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.

Synopsis

We are introduced to a psychotic preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  His m.o.: con a widow, kill her,  steal her money and car, repeat.  Meanwhile a desperate Ben Harper (Peter Graces) has just stolen $10,000 and hid it in his daughter Pearl’s(Sally Jane Bruce) doll.  He scarcely has time to swear his son John (Billy Chapin) to secrecy before he is hauled off by the cops.  Judged to hang for the murder of two men, he spends his last night with Powell in the jail during which he discloses (in his sleep) that he has hid the money with his family.  After his death, Powell tracks down his family,  marries Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and proceeds to try and coax the secret out of the children.  Willa catches him threatening Pearl but by that point is so far into his cult that she doesn’t mind.  He murders her, and the children run away down the river.  Powell chases after them on horseback until they land in the property of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a religious old lady who takes care of children in various stages of abandonment.  Eventually, Powell finds out that they are with her and a final showdown takes place in which he is ultimately caught, tried, convicted and hanged.  Before the hanging a lynch mob forms and Cooper whisks the children away.  The film closes with a peaceful Christmas scene in Mrs Cooper’s home.

The first shot of the film, not explainable until the final act.

The first shot of the film, not explainable until the final act.

Review

Perhaps the most basic requirement of any horror film, and ‘Night of the Hunter’ is without a doubt one of the paradigms of the genre, is the removal of all “natural” authority.  We are presented with an awful situation and the solution of calling the cops or any other representatives of the state can’t be allowed–it would eliminate the horror.  Indeed, the ability to weave a plausible world in which horrible things can happen without any of the social structures that would inevitably arise to arrest the horrors is the first requirement of any horror film.  To mention just one example, ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962, dir. Herk Harvey, public domain) solves this problem by making, within the framework of the heroine’s delusions, everyone a clown-faced monster, including the police.  Predictable? Perhaps, but well executed.

‘The Night of the Hunter’ makes a similarly predictable choice by casting as heroes two young children who have systematically been disabused of all authority figures.  The film opens with them seeing their father dragged off to his death by the police.  Hastily, they must swear never to disclose the location of the stolen loot.  The cops are out.  Their mother and their entire small town society are under the spell of Harry Powell, the villainous preacher.   Their only hope for authority, Uncle Birdie,  is too drunk to be of any service the moment that he’s needed.

But the necessary shift to the children’s point of view runs much deeper.  From the first scenes of the film, it is clear that we are dealing not with any “grown-up” realist story but rather with a fairy tale.  The film follows the well trod border between the grown-up’s horror film and the child’s bedtime tale.  Realism is largely disregarded and the surprisingly natural pairing of German expressionism with the perception of a child is exploited to full effect.  After all, where more does one see reality distorted to fit an emotional state than in the minds of children?

Exactly the way a child would perceive the "big city."

Exactly the way a child would perceive the "big city."

One of the many masterful examples of Laughton’s use of expressionism to further the childlike reality is in the construction of the Harper family house.  The corridors are ridiculously narrow, the angles unnaturally sharp.  As a result, a feeling of claustrophobia simply exudes from the set.

What sort of small-town house would have a corridor not wide enough for a man and a half to pass?

What sort of small-town house would have a corridor not wide enough for a man and a half to pass?

The effect of distorting reality suits the viewers identification with a child’s world.  For continuity, that style is preserved throughout the film but it is clear that its most direct purpose is the establishment of the world in which the night of the hunter can take place and in which it is the most horrifying.

The unequivocal center of the film is the eponymous night in which the children are hunted down the river by the cool dominant Powell.  Natural images of predators and prey abound.  “Nature is strong, nature is harsh, nature is inevitable,” they seem to say. The nightmare becomes real, as it were, with Powell slowly following the children on horseback. (Though the word nightmare has no etymological link to the word mare, it retains a psychological association that Laughton seems more than happy to capitalize on.)  To quote Roger Ebert, “this beautifully stylized sequence uses the logic of nightmares, in which no matter how fast one runs, the slow step of the pursuer keeps the pace.”

To this end, Laughton has offered us one of those rare treats in the history of cinema, a story that couldn’t have been told in another medium.  I have not read the novel upon which the film is based but the very medium of writing cannot free itself from conjuring characters in the mind of the reader.  If an adult reads a novel about children, the children will be “adultized” naturally–their thoughts will be granted the unrealistic depth of the reader’s own and the childishness will be unavoidably eclipsed by the mature personality of the reader.  In Laughton’s use of expressionistic technique–the rich textures combined with distorted realities–he has shown us the world of the child.  It is a world of fear, of beauty and of mystery that could not be seen otherwise.  In that respect it is similar to that great fountainhead of expressionist cinema, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1917 dir. Robert Wien), which gives a similar treatment to insanity.

The hunter and his prey.

The hunter and his prey.

The film’s title is apt.  The night of chase is clearly the climax upon which the entire film hinges upon.  The night sequence is so central, in fact, that the rest of the film, particularly the beginning,  seems to fall by the wayside.  This is particularly felt in the pacing of the film.  The pacing of the “calm” first part of the story is jerky, confusing and ultimately superficial.  The father comes and goes so quickly, Powell arrives and is accepted so fast that the viewer is confused.   The pacing befits a violent and dramatic climax but the story is by nature slow and banal–the calm before the storm that is requisite in all horror films.  But the exposition is so hasty, one feels more like the characters were passengers in a passing train than cinematically living human beings.

To a certain extent, I think one could excuse the maltreatment of the first half on the grounds that it somehow intensifies the chase.  The Ben Harper, Willa Harper–these characters are irrelevant and any emotions devoted to them would distract us from the central conflict between the kids and Powell.  I would still maintain, though, that the poor treatment of the first half of the story is the great weakness of this film and that it could have been avoided by a more well paced exposition.  It is too quick and jittery to allow the viewer to enter the world of the film and, though the main sequence is terrifying, none of the characters aside from the three central ones are brought to life.  It is conceivable that after seeing this film a few more times I will see more logic in the first part of the film.  As of now it looks like a blemish.

It is clear, watching this film,  that Laughton wanted to say something deeper, specifically regarding religion.  It’s equally clear, though, that the film is not the statement of someone truly anti-religious as it is portrayed by mediadiva.com.  It doesn’t even condemn organized religion.  The villain is not affiliated with anything other than his own psychosis. (Ben: What religion do you profess, Preacher? Powell: The religion the Almighty and me worked out
betwixt us.)  An obvious candidate for criticism would be Powell’s L-O-V-E vs. H-A-T-E extreme view of the world.  Women = Sex = Evil, or something like that.  But that approach is presented as too psychotic and really too silly to be worth criticizing.  To make matters worse for the anti-religious view, salvation is brought to the children by a Mary-esque bible-thumper who is just as fanatical about her faith as Powell is and equally removed from any organized form of religion.  An “anti-religious” film could have easily brought salvation in a more secular vehicle.

In fact, the true target of Laughton’s wrath (if one can say such a thing) are the suckers who fall for Powell’s preacher act.  This is one of the more subtle and important points that the film makes, in my opinion.  Evil can find its home in religious imagery (Powell: Not that you mind the killin’s…Yore Book is full of killin’s.) yet that same religious imagery has the key to its defeat (Cooper/Narrator: And he opened his mouth and taught them,
saying, ‘Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.).  The victims are the ones who are unwilling or unable to make sense of the religious imagery themselves.  These are the ignorant townspeople, the facile Willa Harper and presumably Powell’s previous victims–all those who get worked up in a fervor by Powell’s cheesecake hand routine or his more developed torchlit rites.

The only scene showing Powell in a ministering context.

Of course, these are the same people that form a lynch mob at the end of the film to do away with Powell once and for all.  Cooper understands that the “righteous rage” of the townsfolk is essentially the same blind passion that allowed Powell to take control.  As such, she rushes the children away from the mob with an urgency that she didn’t even show when dealing with Powell himself.  Powell is unforgivable but his character is rich enough for us to sympathize with him in a villainous sort of way.  The townspeople’s stupidity and vulgar religiosity is given no sympathy.

Probably the most significant scene relating to the symbolic conflict between Powell’s religion and Cooper’s is the one in which he sits on her front lawn singing ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ and Cooper joins in, briefly, but with the altered verse, “Leaning on Jesus.”  On the one hand, she succumbs to his singing, she joins in harmoniously, she doesn’t try and drown him out nor does she just ignore him–she actively picks up the same hymn.  She just adds two words, “on Jesus,” that are supposed to distinguish her from him.  It’s a difficult scene to explain completely.  In my opinion, its opaqueness is inherited from the real complexity of the issue.  Religion is one of the best and worst things that mankind has been associated with.  Fortunately, the song can be seen on youtube:

Greed, too, is a major theme of the film.  After all, why else was Powell hounding the children if not for the $10,000 they are carrying?  But any simple equivalence between greed and evil is not borne out by the film.  Early in the film, Powell expresses his relation to money outright:

“You always send me money to go forth and preach
your Word. A widow with a little wad of bills
hidden away in the sugar-bowl.”

Though never mentioned explicitly, we are led to believe that “The Word”  is nothing other than the murder of all women, at least all women with anything sexual about them.  Money is an afterthought, a divine stamp of approval, as it were.  To paraphrase Nick Cave, (who was obviously influenced by this film) Powell’s not there for her money, not for her love but for her soul.  And yet, as the film progresses he seems to pursue the money with a single-mindedness that leads directly to his own ruin.   Was he lying to the Lord? Or perhaps his hunt had some other rationality besides for the obvious money?  This same sort of tension is reevaluated by the Coen Brothers in ‘No Country For Old Men’ (2007).  Two men who distinguish themselves as being far less materialistic than their surrounding society in a maniacal race for a small fortune–a race that will leave at least one of them dead.

At the end of the day it is the incomprehensibility of these two themes–religion fuels evil and yet it saves, greed is an afterthought yet it drives men to atrocities–that makes ‘The Night of the Hunter’ a great film.

The harsh inevitability of the natural world justifies the children's terror.

The harsh inevitability of the natural world justifies the children's terror.