My dear, dear friends. My brethren. I am here to denounce my transgressions before ye. I have sinned the sin of misdirection. For while the movie on which I am about to speak boasts a villain most heinous, and while it is true that numerous characters suffer both physical and psychological terrors, yet this work of entertainment is not usually considered a horror by the outspoken masses. Rather, the cinematic diversion in question is decreed to be a film-noir thriller of the highest calibre. And although the crown of thorns I bear weighs heavy upon me, still I must state that it was never my intent to deceive. For I say to you without impudence that this film deserves its place on this site as sure as any shambling ghoul or frightful apparition.
Watching Robert Mitchum’s performance in The Night of the Hunter does tend to make you wish all communication was couched in overwrought phrasing and served in a rich baritone. But, I’ll never get through this article if I continue on in that fashion. So, let us go forth, my little lambs, and…sorry. Let’s take a look at The Night of the Hunter.
During the Great Depression, Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a travelling, self-proclaimed preacher spreading God’s Word throughout West Virginia and Ohio. Along with the Gospel, Reverend Powell is pleased to offer deception, larceny, and murder. Powell is a con man and a serial killer who specializes in preying on widows. We are introduced to Powell just after he has disposed of his latest victim in a cellar and is moving on in a stolen Model T Ford. As he drives, Powell chats casually with the Lord. This one-sided conversation makes it clear that Powell is not only an evil person; he is also delusional. He justifies his killing and thievery as doing ‘the Lord’s work’ and, while this is obvious rationalization, he seems to at least partially believe it. Powell’s God sends him money to preach the Word and does not “mind the killings”
The stolen car results in a brief stint in a state prison for the preacher but this too, in Powell’s eyes, is part of God’s plan. Powell finds himself cellmates with Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper is awaiting execution by hanging for a murder committed while robbing a bank. Before being dragged away by the police, Harper hid ten thousand dollars somewhere on his property and left the secret with his two young children, John and Pearl. Harper told John the money would belong to them when they grew up. He makes John swear to tell no one the location of the money including their mother who, according to Harper, lacks common sense.
Not long after Harper meets his end, Powell is released from prison and makes a beeline for Harper’s home. Powell charms his way into the trust of the townspeople, particularly the town busybody with the unlikely name of Icey Spoon. Viewers will likely find themselves strongly disliking Mrs. Spoon which is a credit to actress Evelyn Varden. Icey has some strange, but sadly not entirely unique, opinions on a woman’s place in the world. Despite being pushy and overbearing to her own husband, Icey promotes women being subservient to their spouses. She goes so far as to state that the pleasures of the bedroom are meant only for men. “That’s something for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream.” She has no qualms about sharing with a group of picnic-goers how, for forty years, she has lain there “thinking about [her] canning”. This, with her poor husband standing not five feet away. Icey also doesn’t have much appreciation for love but thinks women need to be married. Should a woman lose her partner, she should seek out a replacement as quickly as possible. It is Icey, more than Powell himself, that pressures John’s mother into a relationship with the unhinged preacher.
Not that the preacher doesn’t have his own hang-ups. During his earlier chat with God, he becomes quite worked up over things the Lord does hate: “Perfumed smelling things. Lacy things. Things with curly hair.” In response, the Lord directs Powell to a burlesque show where he sits stone-faced in the crowd until his excitement and anger get the better of him and he drives the switchblade he hides in his hand through his jacket pocket. He will later proclaim that the body of a woman “was not meant for the lust of men.”
John’s mother, Willa, is portrayed by Shelley Winters. Winters gives a very subdued performance as befits a woman still mourning the loss of her husband who is being browbeaten into a new marriage. Her soft-spoken and resigned demeanor depicts a broken spirit ready to be controlled by Powell even to the detriment of her own children. Powell’s sermonizing will brainwash Willa into believing that she was responsible for her husband’s death and that she needs Powell to help her become clean in the eyes of the Lord. The only time Winters allows Willa to show any fire in her spirit is during a crazed confessional in front of a small congregation of Powell’s followers.
Robert Mitchum’s performance as Powell is the clear standout of the film. Mitchum is often described as drowsy eyed but when appropriate those eyes become alive with emotion. You can see them harden when Ben Harper questions his religious beliefs. They shift ever so slightly when Powell is creating falsehoods on the fly. And they widen almost gleefully when he is threatening John. These are all subtle changes but they provide glimpses behind the calm, civilized exterior worn by the preacher. Mitchum uses his wonderful voice in a similar fashion. There is little perceptible change to the tone and yet sometimes it is charming, sometimes conniving, and sometimes terrifying. It is especially chilling when, in the middle of the night, Powell sings the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (from which the title of this article is taken). Meant to be a comfort, the hymn takes on a sinister aspect when sung by Mitchum in the dark. When, late in the film, Lillian Gish’s character sings along, it is a beautiful rendition. Yet there is no joy in the song. This is a battle between strong wills and between Evil and Good.
That duet drives home what I consider a major theme of the story. You may reasonably assume that the picture is anti-religion. Reverend Powell is a foul, wicked man using religion as a tool and an excuse to commit horrible acts on his fellow men. But Powell is the ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is the false prophet warned of in the Bible lesson at the opening of the film. The movie is not anti-religion but rather warns of the tainting of religion and the abuse of belief. When Powell comes up against a strong religious woman in possession of common sense, he has met his match.
The Night of the Hunter was the first and only directorial credit of the Oscar winning actor Charles Laughton. Laughton was probably best known as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) but horror fans may recognize him from his creepy, child-like take on Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932). Poor reception to The Night of the Hunter at the time of its release both by critics and at the box-office was responsible for cutting Laughton’s directing career short. Ironically, the film is held in very high regard today with many critics citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez framed shots in a highly stylized, quasi-realistic manner that relied heavily on the use of shadow and harsh angles.
It is a style reminiscent of German Expressionist films of the 1920s including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and Metropolis (1927). The Night of the Hunter is filled with art gallery worthy compositions. It was difficult deciding on the images for this article. There are so many more I would have liked to share. The visually striking imagery, combined with Mitchum’s haunting and powerful performance, make The Night of the Hunter a not-to-be-missed experience.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) Directed by Charles Laughton; Written by James Agee & Charles Laughton; Based on the novel by Davis Grubb; Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, & Peter Graves; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
This is my contribution to The Shelley Winters Blogathon. My partner in mayhem has also written an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Poppity Talks Classic Film and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for welcoming us into the congregation.