Once upon a time, there was a strange man, who wore a black suit and a black hat, and called himself the Preacher. He roamed from town to town, village to village, seeking widows and their children. The Preacher liked to walk at night, under the starry sky, singing a holy song. But the soul of this man was anything but holy. His “heart of darkness” permeated and beat menacingly through the damp and humid mists of the Southern air. The women without men weren’t safe, and any time an opportunity struck, so did the blade of the Preacher’s knife. The children lived in fear, but it’s in this story that justice would find the Preacher and mete out the punishment befitting a man who had no regard for human life.
Such is the story of The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s first and only film he made as a director. The film stars Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, a criminal and a murderer who’s meeting people under the pretense that he’s a preacher. Harry’s in the habit of murdering widows for their money, and when he finds himself arrested for driving a stolen car, and in a jail cell with Ben Harper (who’s awaiting execution), he sees another opportunity to get rich through his horrific scheme.
Harper has stashed $10,000 from a bank robbery in his daughter Pearl’s doll. Before he’s arrested, he makes his son, John, as well as Pearl, promise they’ll never tell where the money’s hidden. In the jail, Harry’s unable to coax the information out of Ben, but he knows where his wife and children live. He has God on his side (or so he thinks) when it comes to his twisted and deranged homicidal habits.
Harry quickly ingratiates himself into the community, and finds Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Everyone’s smitten by his evangelical charms, except Willa’s son, John. He doesn’t like Harry immediately, a dislike that he can’t quite understand. John’s set on protecting Pearl, and his mother, despite the fact that he’s just a boy. In a local restaurant, Harry gives Willa and others a ridiculous and absurd exegetical lesson. His fingers are tattooed with two words: left hand is “hate” and right hand is “love.” This, he tells them, is the primary battle between good and evil. He’s not wrong, but as a false prophet, he demonstrates the battle by clasping his fingers together in a fight between love and hate.
There’s obviously something crooked about Harry and, while mostly keeping quiet, men in the town are suspicious of Harry’s intentions, while women can’t take their eyes off of him. Harry harasses John and Pearl by repeatedly asking where the money’s hidden. Pearl trusts Harry and even sees him as a substitute father, but John continues to display overt hatred and rejection of Harry.
It’s not difficult to see why. Harry moves around the house like a snake dressed in black. The courtship between Harry and Willa is short, and convinced by the town’s meddlers to marry him, Willa expects peace, quiet, and care. But on their wedding night, Harry rejects her rightful advances. He’s a woman-hater and tells her that unless she’s willing to have more children, he will have nothing to do with her carnal desires. Willa accepts her fate and at Harry’s insistence looks at herself in the mirror. She needs to be cleansed of sin.
It’s unclear where Harry’s misogyny originated but this is clear: his focus is on self-interest and money. Once he realizes that Willa’s in the way, he murders her. In a terrifying scene, Harry appears to be a giant in a shadowy and claustrophobic room. Willa, laying on the bed, dressed in white, hands clasped together, praying and seeking purity, doesn’t seem to mind what happens next. Harry opens his switchblade and kills her.
Willa’s body, along with the Model T, end up at the bottom of a river. Laughton creates a beautiful effect with reeds in the river. Although it’s clear that the woman under the water is an inanimate model and not Shelley Winters herself, the grotesqueness is accentuated by its artificiality. Evocative of Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” and even more John William Waterhouse’s eponymous 1888 painting, Willa’s ethereal suspension and death is a component of this nightmarish fairy tale.
Knowing they’re not safe, John and Pearl set out on a little boat, not really knowing where they should go. Their own fate brings them into the safehouse of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who takes care of orphaned children. Harry tracks John and Pearl down, claiming they’re his “flesh and blood.” At this point, Harry’s a caricature of a menacing man in black. Faking tears, and trying the old evangelical trick with his hands, Harry loses because Rachel sees right through him. She’s the protector of the children, like a mother duck helping her ducklings cross the road. One scene in particular is suggestive of that, and seems like something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel rather than an American gothic tale, yet it remains firmly planted in an American Southern consciousness. If Flannery O’Connor was a filmmaker, she would’ve made this exact film.
Mitchum’s Harry Powell is terrifying, yet there’s something comical about him as well. In fact, the film's definition depends on each character’s point of view in the film. If the film is purely viewed through a child’s eyes, then The Night of the Hunter is a grim fairy tale, meant to caution the grown-ups against evil men. Yet, whenever Harry’s in contact with John and Pearl, he becomes distorted. His mannerisms, especially those that indicate a terrifying monster, become childish, like a crude drawing of a toddler.
This is, partially, where Harry begins to lose power. The innocence of children render him a crude and comical monster. Rachel Cooper’s angelic cunning negates Harry’s power further. Rachel is the real “preacher” in this case, a God-fearing woman, who lives by chapter 10, verse 16 of the Gospel According to Matthew: “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Rachel’s a shrewd angel who is the only salvation for John and Pearl.
Juxtaposed to Harry’s darkness are scenes of serenity. As children float through the river on their little boat, they’re under the watchful eyes of animals. Frogs, rabbits, and later owls, are the protectors of John and Pearl against the big, bad wolf in the preacher's clothing. Mitchum is a superb actor, and his movements between a fairy-tale monster and an empty and immoral man are flawless. He’s a man capable of complex deception, a perfect con man and a false prophet, yet when things don’t go his way, he becomes a mindless monster, incapable of subduing the children the way he wants to.
Overwhelmed with disappointment that The Night of the Hunter wasn’t received well, and that it was poorly marketed, Charles Laughton never made another film. We can wonder what other masterpieces he would’ve made, but is that really necessary? Without a doubt, there’s a sadness at the vanishing possibilities of what could’ve been, but The Night of the Hunter carries depth, complexity, and uniqueness worthy of many films. It is sui generis, and not only because of Laughton’s vision, but also Mitchum’s complex, staggering, and immovable presence.