This story takes place in West Virginia during the Great Depression. Serial killer Reverend Harry Powell, a self-anointed preacher, flees the scene of his last murder. He rationalizes his murders by believing he is punishing sinful women and using their money to preach God’s word. To this end, he has the letters “L-O-V-E” tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and “H-A-T-E” on those of the opposite. His luck seemingly runs out when he is arrested for driving a stolen car. However, he soon finds himself sharing a cell with Ben Harper, a criminal who, in a bank robbery, killed two people. Ben is sentenced to death shortly thereafter while Powell makes his way to the Harper household. The executed criminal apparently got his kids to promise not to tell the authorities where he hid the stolen money.
When the plot begins in earnest, it’s clear that The Night of the Hunter isn’t like any of its contemporaries. Upon his release from prison, Harry Powell’s first action is to worm his way into the Harpers’ lives. The terrifying part is how effective he is in doing so. At first, he comes across as an affable individual with an eccentric side. With the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers, he lives up to his status as a preacher by telling the story of Cain and Abel, and how the two concepts are always fighting each other. Robert Mitchum’s performance could even give you the impression that his character is not completely evil. All of this quickly revealed to be an act.
To begin with, Harry Powell is based off of the real-life serial killer Harry Powers. He lured unsuspecting victims through “Lonely Hearts” advertisements, claiming to be looking for love. Instead, he would murder his victims and rob them of their money after the fact. He was arrested in August of 1931 and executed the following year. His modus operandi led him to be dubbed the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell.
Powell’s own methodology is eerily similar to that of Powers. Making use of his charm, he manages to trick the widow of Ben Harper, Willa, into marrying him. How he goes about doing so is terrifying. Much like the archetypal domineering domestic abuser, he uses his charisma to convince Willa that she is a sinful woman every bit deserving of the abuse he gives her, thereby subjecting her children, John and Pearl to his wrath by proxy. Although Willa wasn’t exactly a stable woman before she met Powell, she did at least have something resembling self-respect. By the end of the first act, her personality has essentially been erased. Tellingly, when Powell decides she is of no more use and stabs her to death, she puts up no resistance at all – even knowing that her indolence would assuredly doom her kids. Astoundingly, he only gets worse from there.
Fortunately, unlike the adults in this town, who have given Powell their trust and sympathy, John proves to be equal parts perceptive and resourceful. The boy is eventually forced to tell Powell the location of the money. As he searches, John removes a shelf from the wall, causing it to fall on the criminal’s head. From there, the two of them lock Powell in the basement and make their escape. With their uncle passed out drunk, they find they must sail down the Ohio River instead. The sequences that follow seem very reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wherein the title character escapes from the authorities with an enslaved black man by sailing down the Mississippi river. Suddenly the comfortable life John and Pearl once knew is over, and they find themselves barely scraping by to stay alive.
This is the point of the film in which Powell becomes a truly terrifying antagonist. Though he showed no reservations threatening children with his switchblade, he at least came across as a normal, albeit warped human and had the all the limitations thereof. All of them proceed to completely dissipate in the second and third acts. The children manage to sail down the river, ending up in a completely different town, eventually taking refuge in a barn. When John wakes up, he can hear Powell singing his song in the distance. This is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, not caring how many lives he has to end or ruin to accomplish his goal. You get the sense that if the children somehow ended up in the frigid wilderness of Siberia, he would follow them every step of the way without missing a beat.
What I like about these characters is how believable they are. Being ten, John is of the age when he begins truly noticing the world around him. At the same time, his observations are those that aren’t biased from a lifetime of experience. Fittingly, this allows him to see right through Powell’s act while the adults and Pearl fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Then again, the only reason why Pearl is fooled is because she is no older than five. She has not yet reached the age where she can grasp that the people she interacts with might not have her best interests at heart. Even as she sees her father arrested, the fact that he was a bank robber and murderer never crosses her mind. To her, the police merely took him away and killed him for some reason. Being as young as she is, she understandably makes John’s job of protecting her quite difficult.
This entire time, you’re rooting for these children to escape their relentless pursuer, and I’m happy to say that the final act sticks the landing beautifully. An old woman named Rachel Cooper discovers John and Pearl asleep in their rowboat. Though she is quickly established as a strict person when she applies corporal punishment to a disobedient child, she is the single most caring adult in the film. Even so, when Powell inevitably shows up on her doorstep asking about John and Pearl, you’re expecting her to fall for his superficial charm as well. This makes it all the more satisfying when the insufferably smug villain is finally put in his place. Just when you think she is about to turn over the children to him, she calls him out as a fraud, setting up a memorable final act.
Armed with a shotgun, Rachel guards over the house and waits for Powell to return.
When he arrives, he sings his usual song with Rachel joining in. If you see this happening in a majority of cases, it’s because the character in question has gone along with whoever instigated the song. In The Night of the Hunter, it’s to emphasize the stark differences between the two characters. Rachel once made a grievous mistake in the past that resulted in her losing her son’s love. While she seeks to atone for her error, Powell is unapologetic about the crimes he commits, using the parables he tells to mask his malevolence. For his part, Mr. Laughton shot this scene perfectly, masterfully using shadows in a way only Orson Welles could rival.
It is highly fitting in the end that, just as Powell himself predicted, love triumphs over hate. Powell lunges at Rachel, who manages to shoot him square in the chest. Amazingly, this doesn’t kill him, but the police, having recently discovered Willa’s body, are quickly on the scene to arrest Powell. Being reminded of the traumatic arrest of his real father, he hits the criminal over the head with the doll containing the money Powell so profoundly desired.
There is a bit of dramatic irony to be found in this story. Had John not promised to keep the money secret from the law enforcement, Powell would have been foiled right there and then. It was a horrible thing for his father to place such a burden on his own child. This ultimately ties into what allows the story to ring true even today. Part of what made Powell such an effective manipulator has more to do with preaching the Lord’s good word to all who will listen than any kind of natural charm. Simply by saying what his audience wants to hear, he has them clapping like seals every time. The second he confronts someone with common sense, he gets shut down immediately. This development also exposes the townsfolk’s hypocrisy. They scream for Powell’s blood, claiming to be on the children’s behalf despite their own apathy and indolence directly resulting in the con man having unrestricted access to the Harper household. It goes to show that, as bad as Powell was, society’s worst facets allowed him to thrive.
The Night of the Hunter is one of those films that is impossible to discuss without mentioning how it was initially received. There have existed many instances throughout history in which audiences passed up a gem, leaving cinephiles and critics to place them on a pedestal themselves. Conversely, there have been a few times in which critics hated a work only for the common people to vindicate it themselves. Given how respected The Night of the Hunter is today, it’s easy to get the impression that the former of these scenarios occurred. However, the reality is that when The Night of the Hunter debuted in 1955, nobody liked it – critics hated it and it subsequently bombed in the box office.
While this may seem unfathomable now, the negative reception makes a lot of sense when you place it in the context of the era’s mindset. Millions of soldiers around the globe perished in the brutal Second World War. In the United States, people were universally demanding studios place uplifting tales on the silver screen. For their part, the directors obliged, so when The Night of the Hunter, a film that could be seen as a precursor to the slasher genre, hit theaters, they were understandably appalled. As a particularly unfortunate coda to this film’s reception, Charles Laughton would never again find himself in the director’s chair.
The legacy of The Night of the Hunter is as laudable as it is tragic. It is an ambitious film with messages that ring true today, yet its audience wouldn’t exist for another few decades. The Night of the Hunter may have been Charles Laughton’s sole contribution to the medium, but in the span of ninety-two minutes, he managed to achieve a level of greatness most filmmakers couldn’t in a decades-spanning career.
Final Score: 8/10