The False Prophet on Cinema: Musings on The Night of the Hunter
*For the late Mr. Richard Coxsey*
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. — Matthew 7:15–17
Everyone loves the story of good vs. evil. Everyone. Good triumphs. Evil is overpowered. Even if evil triumphs, we carry the vague, foolish hope good will overcome evil so us good folk will bask in the true forthcoming victory. It’s simple, easy, and gratifying. From what I know about the mindset of the 1950s, America, heck the world, wasn’t awfully concerned about the logistics or mechanization of evil or their plethora of manifestations. Rarely, however, does a narrative invite the audience to, how should I put it, experience a monster’s relentless terror through the perspective of children. Certainly, there are child protagonists unwillingly trapped in cliched horror scenarios (demonic possession, stalked by a serial killer entity, paranormal assaults, etc.), but the focus of children resisting the charm and spell of a homicidal maniac, refusing to comply to his wishes, and the sheer horror of this maniac’s exploitation of the townsfolk’s spirituality, that’s not so common.
*cue NotH title card*
Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is a film about a serial killer named Harry Powell, disguised as a preacher, who hunts for unsuspecting single women to woo, marry, and ultimately rob and murder before setting off for his next victim. At the story’s beginning, the Preacher is bent on robbing Willa Harper, a meek widow who’s oblivious to the fact she’s rich. Her previous husband robbed a bank and bestowed a tidy sum of ten thousand dollars to his son and daughter before being apprehended by the police. Set in the Great Depression, the family is financially secure, and John and Pearl swear to guard the money from anyone, even their clueless mother. Being the former prison mate of the doomed husband, the Preacher sets out to slip into the family’s community, win the adoration and support of the townsfolk, quietly swipe the cash, and murder the widow (and potentially the children). But John is the less (FAR LESS) passive son in the family and doesn’t scare easily. He uncovers the Preacher’s intentions, and stands up to him, refusing to hand over the money.
Oh, it’s on.
I was a high school freshman when I first watched Charles Laughton’s (yes, Quasimodo in the 1939 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame) directorial debut, and tragically his only directorial credit. I stumbled upon this film in the mystery/thriller section of the 501 Must-See Movies book I randomly picked at the local Borders. At my bible camp, the summer before I began my freshman year, a camp counselor glanced at the listing and commented how the film was chilling and horrifying. That struck me as peculiar. As chilling and horrifying as Freddy Kruger? Jason Voorhees? Ghostface? The coven in Suspiria? The Blair Witch? It couldn’t be possible.
I can’t remember how my mentor/friend Mr. Richard Coxsey had heard of my interest, but when he caught word, he was absolutely excited. He adored this film. He gushed about Robert Mitchum’s menacing performance, the eerie, dreamlike cinematography akin to early 1920s German Expressionism films, and most importantly, the simple story, ancient, cliched perhaps, but timelessly captivating.
So we watched it, and I will never forget my first screening.
I may or may not have partially fashioned the antagonist of an unfinished fantasy book series after Preacher Harry Powell. I may or may not have memorized the surreal lullaby Pearl Harper mournfully sang as she and her brother drifted along the omnipresent river, having eluded the Preacher’s villainous clutches. I may or may not have searched high and low for the original source material, a short novel written by a long forgotten author (Davis Grubb, if anyone’s curious). In summary, this film floored me. It brought new meaning and dimension to the Biblical passage I’ve heard throughout my childhood: Beware of false prophets.
And I’ve never heard “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” the same since.
It’s no horror film, that’s for sure. Hardly any conventional horror cliches are present. Even if they are, they’re hardly pertinent to the narrative or overwhelm the film’s legacy. Such lack of tropes, in my perspective, lend the film its savage bite. The viewpoint is startlingly not only similar to how any of us would react as children but even as adults, how we tend to cope with worldly horrors: when confronted by monsters or any atrocity against humanity, we yearn for it to be a nightmare near its prompt end. We shut it out, clamp our hands over our faces in defense. Say it’s a dream. Wake up, and it’s over. The film is a prime example that simplicity, with the competent crew, can provide as many squirms and eerie thrills as a masked stalker with a knife. The Night of the Hunter spends an unusual amount of its run time through the perspective of a child, treating the audience as if it were close friends with John and Pearl Harper, and building a horrific universe that is easily duped by this Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, a world not too dissimilar to ours. Despite the audience’s wish to shut its eyes tight, Laughton refuses that luxury. Like a child who must eventually face demons and monsters in all shapes and sizes, we adults must stay vigilant against corrupt figures and threats. Plenty of leaders and teachers sway the masses with their rhetoric, sweet-talk their way into communities, families, even marriages, masquerading malicious intent. It’s the unfortunate way of the world, but they must be acknowledged and confronted. Otherwise, with a tremendous amount of affirmation and support, who’s to say certain individuals or groups wouldn’t incite crime or demonstrations in solidarity of a leader or cause? In most cases, the resistance to upsurging forces rarely overcomes.
For John and Pearl Harper, the child protagonists and antagonist’s target, their reality is, from the start, exclusively grim. Set in the Great Depression, their environment is wrought with deception, poverty, and feeble optimism, beleaguered housewives providing potato soap to wandering, starving children, hoping some good year will arrive. In the novel, it’s apparent Ben Harper, Willa’s former husband, wasn’t a terrible person. Even the townsfolk admitted he was a victim of the Depression, committing robbery merely to provide for his family. Yet, because of his transgression, John and Pearl are branded, damned to ridicule. One tragic example opens the novel and is approximately around the twenty-minute mark in the film adaptation. The schoolchildren taunt the offspring with a cruel song mocking the demise of their father.
Hing Hang Hung
See what the hangman done
Hung Hang Hing
See the robber swing
Is it surprising, then, when a cunning predator emerges from the dusty annals of the Depression-era Midwest to feast on this gullible, grief-stricken family? It certainly makes the Preacher’s swift arrival all the more sickening and cements his status as one of the most memorable villains in cinema.
I’ve labored and contemplated over how a sleazy snake such as Harry Powell could entice his way into the hearts of kindhearted folk. Surely someone other than John would’ve reserved some suspicions over the vaguely threatening manner of the treacherous preacher. Upon reading the novel and another screening of the film, however, I was reminded of one character who indeed did question the Preacher’s intentions. Walt Spoon, Willa Harper’s employer at the local ice cream parlor, voiced his doubt to his wife Icey one late evening, suspecting something missing, something too meticulous about the sequence of the Preacher and grieving widow Willa Harper’s encounter, courting, and eventual marriage. As expected, Walt’s suspicions were discarded, having clashed with Icey’s unshakable devotion to the Preacher, and he was further discouraged from indulging in such absurd notions. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it seems to mirror reality a little too authentically. Countless times, we’ve brushed away our first instinct only to discover we were right. If there’s one bone-chilling reflection of regret I take away from this film, it’s the fact sometimes I’m talked out of acting on my inner misgivings when that’s precisely what I need to do.
Inspired by the real-life Lonely Hearts serial killer Harry Powers (who claimed the live of two women and three children), the antagonist Harry Powell is “Satan hiding behind the cross.” He brandishes his faith for sympathy, certainly, but his true plunder is trust. He wins support from the religious demographic of the townsfolk and, most importantly, John and Pearl’s mother Willa. Try as John might, he cannot win anyone on his side, anyone credible enough to convince the adults of Preacher Powell’s conniving ways. What’s more, the simple objective of the money lends Preacher an upper hand. He doesn’t want to run for office, buy any property, heck he seems indifferent to the power over his religious followers. He just wants the money, and if he must kill, he will.
I watch the film every few years, and it still amazes me. I understand why my elderly friend cherished this film. If not the story, then the cinematography. Say what you want about the film, how the second half isn’t as strong or sensible as the first; heck, I’ll be the first to concede that flaw. Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer, knew exactly how he wished to convey the film’s themes and atmosphere. Every shot and angle is measured, carefully toned and crafted to accentuate the landscape of the narrative: the river’s swift, motherly current guiding the runaway children to safety; the Preacher’s intrusion in the town’s livelihood; the horrific, eerie flow of a corpse’s hair at the bottom of the river; the barren farms, empty and ragged like the despondent housewife who can only spare whole potatoes for wandering, hungry orphans. Each element, moreover, is captured in the perspective of a child, an impressionable vessel gauging the duality of generosity and hostility, light and dark, and the uncertainty of who’s an angel and who’s Satan hiding behind a masquerade or a cross. There’s passion behind the camera, a willingness to use the medium’s full potential, and the fervor is infectious. When an artist successfully employs his/her abilities and creates a sound, inspiring piece, that’s genuine inspiration.
Any criticisms? As previously stated, the second half of the film is where the weaknesses are obvious, verging on eye-rolling. Not necessarily the story itself, but the acting. Some actors, mainly Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish, outshine others, and in certain scenes, even they can’t pick up the slack of the underwhelming performances. I’m referring to the child actors, and to the film’s credit, stellar child actors are rare. Furthermore, the performances in The Night of the Hunter don’t distract from the film’s pace and tone. They’re more on par with Abigail Breslin on a bad day than…pretty much any child starring in an Alex Kendrick film. I’ll gladly take these struggling actors over the latter. It could be argued the novel’s second half wasn’t successfully adapted onto the screen, which could also lead to the possibility of the novel’s second half itself waning in comparison to the stronger first half. However, I would attribute the weaker ending to the fact this was Charles Laughton’s directional debut. Naturally, trial and error is the key to any artistic craft, and for what it’s worth, I could see this being far far worse in the hands of another visionary. With that said, Hollywood, please please please please please PLEASE leave this one alone. Just because you can remake/reboot something doesn’t always mean you should.
It’s a shame, really, this being Laughton’s only film behind the camera. Having directed stage productions, he possessed a eye for detail, and it’s a mystery to me why he selected this narrative as his directorial debut. It’s probably one of the factors to its woefully maligned reception, but that’s mere speculation. Speaking of which, the film’s initial reaction has always bewildered me. Why were critics indifferent to this wondrous dark tale? Bad release timing? Too campy for even its initial audience? Or perhaps it was a tale too morose and could easily be misconstrued as an anti-theist piece; that might explain why my parents weren’t too enthusiastic about the film, being devout Christians. In the end, I suppose nobody in 1955 wanted a dark, nightmarish tale of deception, murder, blind adoration, and treachery. I hesitate to say it was ahead of its time since that phrase in of itself is overused and because of its constant application, true timeless gems become rare to identify. With careful thought, however, yeah. I’d say The Night of the Hunter was ahead of its time. It’s a morbid, grim story, an artful interpretation of the Scripture passage that preludes the film, truly a stunning piece of cinema. The Night of the Hunter examines the terror of a manipulative thief through the perspective of children, vessels who seem to recognize specific evils which are unnoticed or even ignored by adults, and reassures the audience that true victory comes from those who defy such villainy and expose it in its true form. Heck, Stephen King, arguably the contemporary master of horror, lauded Preacher Powell as an outstanding, memorable villain, and when Stephen King commends a villain as sinister and horrific, you did something right.
The Night of the Hunter is by no means a flawless work. As previously stated, elements of the acting and pacing trip the film, and the momentum of the narrative suffers from such discrepancies. That shouldn’t, however, discredit the true wonder and passion Charles Laughton embodies in the medium. He and his crew clarified their devotion to the work through their work rather than settling for mere celluloid print. They understood it wasn’t enough to have a great story or talented individuals; what mattered was how to employ both the knowledge and innovation, to extend beyond the average, conjure not only the best work but the best collaborative work, and beautifully weave each remarkable element into a remarkable piece of cinema. This is how genuine art is born: garnering the best in a group of artists and combining to make something memorable, passionate, and with heart. And that, in my view, is worth more than any lukewarm reception.
A good true cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. — Matthew 7:18–20