Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter is one of the great works of childhood horror, a Grimm fairy tale as filtered through the Gothic moralism of Flannery O'Connor. But where movies like Pan's Labyrinth and The Spirit of the Beehive focus primarily on the trials and tribulations of youth brought about by a society they can neither control nor comprehend, Laughton's surreal fable is about primal human emotions. As such, it can be as amusing as it is terrifying, occasionally at the same time.
Opening with thunderous and scary music, The Night of the Hunter establishes the dichotomy between its frightening elements and its softer side when the music suddenly evolves into a children's choir singing. Through the lyrics sung in those saintly voices, Laughton plants the idea that the softer voice can be as unsettling as the harsher orchestration, blurring the line between innocence and evil. Instantly breaking from reality, Laughton throws the disembodied heads of children of all races into the sky as a kindly old woman speaks to them, reading from Matthew 7: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
That foreboding melts into the first true scene, which breaks up the sense of childhood idyll of kids playing hide and seek by showing a pair of women's legs laid askew at the top of a cellar when one of the children runs to hide there. We then move to a preacher driving through the West Virginian countryside, engaged in a talk with the Lord. But the bright tone of the man's voice and the penitent image of his upturned head belies the content of his words. He speaks of widows he admits to killing. "Six? Twelve? I disremember," he drawls. The man, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), is clearly the false prophet warned of in the prologue, using specifically chosen passages of the Bible to justify his misogyny.
By comparison, the next scene, tracking the poor man driving frantically to his home with cops on his tail, does not seem as sinister, even when we learn the man, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), is fleeing a bank robbery and double murder. He runs with a stack of bills to his son, John (Billy Chapin), making the 10-year-old swear to protect not only his younger sister, Pearl, and their mother but to also guard the $10,000 Ben entrusts to the boy. Sentenced to hang, Ben spends a few weeks in the state penitentiary, where his bunk mate is, why, none other than Harry Powell, convicted of driving a stolen car. After overhearing Ben muttering his guilt in his sleep, Powell tries to con the man into giving up the location of that dough, for the good o' his soul, of course. Once the hangman sees to Ben and Harry serves his 30 days, he heads straight for the Harper home to determine what happened to that money.
Laurence Olivier, Gary Cooper, even Laughton himself considered taking the role of Powell, but Mitchum's casting brings out the maximum potential of Powell's sexual potency. Thirty-seven years old at the time of filming, Mitchum was more than 10 years younger than the other prime candidates, allowing him to project the gravity that comes with age while retaining his rakish looks. Cooper might have been more grave, and Olivier and Laughton's British voices and temperaments could have edged their performances closer to the one Chaplin gave as the misogynistic murderer Monsieur Verdoux. But Mitchum is a sexual monster, as charismatic as he is repulsive, and his screeds against sexual impurity are even more ironic and twisted coming from a man who excites every woman he meets.
His arrival in town, where he poses not as Ben's cellmate but the prison chaplain, sends the folk into a frenzy: Mrs. Spoon (Evelyn Varden), the officious ice cream shop owner, sees Powell as a prime candidate to take the now-widowed Willa's (Shelley Winters) hand to save her from her sinful ways. Though she rails against sex as lustful and something only a man should care about, she clearly reacts to Harry as strongly as Willa herself. Just as Powell himself is the embodiment of false religion, so too does Icey's hypocritical Puritanism force the other characters into dangerous situations. In what seems like days, Powell seduces Willa and the two marry. Willa, being a woman in Robert Mitchum's presence, has to stop herself from bouncing into the bedroom on her wedding night, but Powell angrily refuses sex, dismissing it as a lustful exercise.
Powell's torture of the Harper family is astonishingly complex and disturbing for a film made in 1955. While Pearl's love for Powell is obviously not the same as the sexual longing he engenders in the older women he encounters, she wishes to accept Harry as her new dad, making the pain all the worse when he starts yelling at her in his search for the money. Young John sees through Powell's front, but he too falls prey to Powell's psychological torture, which turns everyone else against him and causes adults to accuse him of lying when he begs someone to believe that Harry is only there for the money. As for poor Willa, she's warped into becoming a mouthpiece for Powell's demented sermons, brainwashed into feeling guilt for her husband's crimes, which the preacher convinces her came about because of her desire for "perfume, clothes and face paint." So addled is Willa that, when she finally discovers the truth, she does not even lash out, accepting this as the price for her salvation. That attitude applies also to her seeming acceptance of her death as Harry slashes her throat for knowing too much.
Laughton, whose homosexual affairs gave him a certain insight into sexual shame in a society that could close in around those whose views on the subject were not sufficiently prudent, brings a deep psychosexual nuance to these proceedings. When Powell heads to a burlesque show in some bizarre, perverse show of fortitude, he reacts to the sight of the woman -- framed as if being viewed through a keyhole, emphasizing the peeping nature of the show -- by jutting his hand into his coat pocket and thumbing the switch on his knife, sending the blade slicing through the fabric. The eroticism is potent, suggesting not only an erect penis but also that the preacher might be slicing through his clothes so he could play some "pocket pool." Mitchum's own voice deepens the character: his echoing, haunting baritone, never more pronounced than here, speaks to pent-up testosterone, a sagging of overfilled testicles begging for release.
When filtered through the expressionistic cinematography of Stanley Cortez, Mitchum's sexual terror magnifies. Through the careful direction, Powell's head takes on a reptilian quality when it drops over Ben's somniloquy, and his painfully arched look upwards suggests that Powell does communicate with some other being, but that the force may simply be a dark voice in his head. That look precedes his murder of Willa, who poses in saintly fashion as she awaits martyrdom for her deliverance (Laughton actually directed Winters to look more "seraphic"), and the scene turns even colder when the camera pulls back to show an impossibly high ceiling as Powell raises his knife. The mind games Harry plays with John condense these grand moments into a more intimate but still melodramatic style. They communicate largely through looks: Powell eyes the boy with suspicion as he tries out a fabricated story of where Ben told him the money was hidden, and the half smirk that tugs at John's face tells Harry, and the audience, that he knows where the money actually is. That giveaway is as suspenseful as anything else in the film, a tell that ensures Powell will hang around.
The sheer atmospherics of the film's horror continue to amaze me. Shots of Powell standing outside the Harper home, his shadow cast upon the wall of the children's bedroom, chill to the bone. One nighttime scene arranges fog shrouding the house as light fails to pass through the soupy mist in such a manner that I wondered if William Friedkin ripped it off wholesale for The Exorcist. Powell's pitch-black suit blends into Laughton and Cortez's deep shadow, further establishing him as a primal, animalistic force of antagonism. Even the more comical moments of Mitchum's performance -- the deliberately ridiculous "LOVE-HATE" tattoos on his hands that he uses for a vapid sermon, his Frankenstein-like amble up the cellar stairs played for physical comedy -- carry an undercurrent of vicious terror owing to the immaculate blocking.
Yet the most impressive aspect of Laughton's direction is how lyrical The Night of the Hunter remains. Rooted in the perspective of the children, Laughton's film attains a childlike purity despite the director's purported hatred of the child actors -- the long-circulated outtakes at last included on home video in Criterion's superlative release show him barking orders at them and even striking Chapin to make his looks of pain more real. The children escape Powell's clutches as he emits an animalistic howl of rage, only for Laughton to contrast Powell's barbarism with actual beasts in nature, seen as John and Pearl row upstream. The real animals, though framed either in the foreground of long shots or in close-ups, do not look threatening even as they communicate their power.
The river trip turns the film from the twisted O'Connor fable into a true fairy tale, one that imposes actual stakes on its protagonists. Whenever they stop to rest, Powell finds them, never directly confronting them but moving around them, preventing them from getting even a moment's peace. And speaking of lyricism: is there any shot so beautiful yet repulsive as the sight of Willa's corpse tied to her Model-T underwater, her hair floating and twisting in the current identically to the reeds around her, the rope that tethers her to an almost comically oversized sinking weight coiling around her like the knife wound that loops around her throat?
The film may take a turn for the simplistic when the children reach Miz Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a kindly old woman who represents true spirituality, but the predictable ending of a good vs. evil tussle cannot undue the subtlety of the statements that continue to be made on religion, violence and greed. Cooper takes the children in to live with the other orphans she's accepted in the hard times of the Depression, and when Powell comes looking for them, Cooper sees through his BS even faster than John did. A midnight siege from Powell pits the wolf in sheep's clothing against the pious servant of God, a tense stand-off that ends in the most unexpected manner: by Powell completely falling apart when Rachel shoots him and causes a minor wound. The farce of Mitchum's volte-face from grave murderer to shrieking coward may actually be the cleverest commentary in the film: like any bully, even the Devil shrinks when fully confronted by those unwilling to back down.
I continue to circle around the moods Laughton maintains in the film, drawn as I am to consider each viewing of this masterpiece my first given how well it always surprises me. Walter Schumann's score and the diegetic music contributes to the movie's lyrical qualities. The use of lullabies and playground rhymes is lilting but complex, containing the darker messages of old rhymes. The opening song and the hangman taunt that other children sing to the Harper kids convey iniquitous malice. Powell constantly sings the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Well, sing isn't the right word; he intones it, such a larger-than-life figure that he breaks the bonds of the film and decides to create his own musical leitmotif. Laughton always places the song into the front of the sound mix, even as he rides his horse in the far background as he tracks the children, his chants rumbling around them like a zombie's implacable moan. So integral to the character is that hymn that the climax first pits Powell and Cooper against each other by clashing their takes on the hymn, Cooper singing an alternate version that namechecks Jesus, a choice that makes her higher voice all the sweeter compared to Powell's drone.
The film ends with Powell in custody, and the sight of the preacher being beaten by police brings out lingering feelings of guilt in John, who suffers a flashback to his father's own abuse and frees the hidden money all over Powell in despair. If Powell gave Willa a Flannery O'Connor-esque grace in her death, so too does John ultimately find salvation through the villain who tried to kill him. At his trial, Powell no longer looks like such a vision of primal sin when the townspeople form a mob around him. Interestingly, Laughton appears to view Mrs. Spoon with more disgust than Powell: the preacher may be a monster, but he's honest about it. Spoon just bases her beliefs on the attitudes of the mob, hypocritically acting as the moral leader of a community when she bends instantly to the shift in mood among those she bosses around. It's a bit of satire that speaks to the comedy sprinkled throughout, Laughton's way of crafting a horrific, scary film, then undercutting the power of evil by pointing out its absurdity.
Befitting the dichotomous moods conjured up by the film, The Night of the Hunter itself embodies one of the greatest contradictions of the cinema: it is one of the key examples of auteurism even as it also stands as one of the strongest cases against the theory. The Night of the Hunter could not have been made without the contributions of Cortez, of James Agee (whose 293-page first draft was cut in half before Laughton decided to make his own vision off of it, though vital insights Agee provided remain), and, of course, Mitchum. Yet they were all unified by Laughton and his uncompromising vision, finding the best aspects of each player and marrying them in the way that only someone far enough away from the different elements to see how they fit together could.
No matter how many times I watch The Night of the Hunter, the meticulousness of its detail can still grip me. The perfectly timed drawl of "Children..." as Powell searches the house for John and Pearl, or the dark comedy of John tiptoeing around Pearl's questions about her mother's fate -- "She's gone to Moundsville," John assures her. "To see Dad?" she asks. "Yes, I reckon that's it" -- are still fresh. Made five years before Hitchcock poured out the remnants of his sexual hangups into the Freudian figure Norman Bates, Laughton's film crafted a far subtler, far more graceful look at the devastating effects of sexual repression, and the director couched it within a number of other themes, to boot.
I haven't cracked the surface of the film's delights, its complicated production and the sad denouement of the movie's unpopular release and the utter tragedy that Laughton would never direct again. The Night of the Hunter breaks every stereotype of "old" movies: it's vibrant, unpredictable, layered and as reflexive as any modern film made by the VCR generation (casting Gish is but the most visible example of the debt the film owes to D.W. Griffith, while the visual lyricism draws on German expressionism, particularly in the silent era). Powered by one of the greatest screen performances of all time, The Night of the Hunter never becomes too enamored with its star attraction, maintaining the childlike POV that allows the movie to work as so much more than a horror film. In so doing, it becomes the most lyrical film made in America since Sunrise.