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The Night of the Hunter

November 19, 2010

300. The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton
USA, 1955
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Approx. fourth viewing





Reverend Harry Powell: Well now, what’s it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. [He tips his hat] You say the word, Lord, I’m on my way… You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killin’s. Your Book is full of killin’s. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.

Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a psychopathic, misogynistic killer with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed across the knuckles of each hand. Powell travels the Depression-era American South, marrying lonely widows and killing them for their money, convinced he is doing the Lord’s bidding. When he is imprisoned for car theft, his cellmate is Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a family man who is sentenced to death for killing two people in an armed robbery. Ben has entrusted his children, John (Billy Chapin) and younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), with the location of the money.

When Powell is released, he tracks down Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually marrying her and ingratiating himself with the locals, all in hopes of finding the money. Only John can see through Powell’s pious facade and, when Willa disappears, he and Pearl escape on a skiff, pursued by the tireless Powell. John and Pearl are taken in and protected by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a devoutly religious old woman who looks after stray children.

Essential Scene:

John, having escaped Reverend Powell but failed to find any other help, takes Pearl to the river where a skiff is hidden. As John tries to launch the boat, Powell appears again, pushing his way desperately through a thicket to the riverbank. The boat begins to sail down the river just in time, leaving Powell waist-deep in water, holding his switchblade aloft, watching the children leave with the money. He begins to whimper, which turns into an anguished cry.

As the skiff floats down the river, the mood suddenly changes from the tense urgency of the chase to an eerie calm. Pure white reflections play on the inky black water as they drift through the nighttime countryside. John lies down at the bow of the boat and sleeps. Pearl sits at the stern, playing with her doll and singing a song, accompanied by the film score.

Once upon a time there was a pretty fly
He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly
But one day she flew away
Flew away

She had two pretty children
But one night these two pretty children
Flew away, flew away
Into the sky, into the moon


The Devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand

~ “Misery is the River of the World” by Tom Waits

The Night of the Hunter is simultaneously one of the scariest and most beautiful films I have ever seen. Reverend Harry Powell is a supremely disturbing character, a man who practices “the religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.” His ability to win the trust of others despite being so transparently evil to young John, mixed with Stanley Cortez’s expressionistic cinematography, gives the film a uniquely nightmarish quality. The first time I saw the film, I was shuddery for the whole day afterwards, so chilling is Reverend Powell.

The character of Rachel Cooper is not merely the opposite of Powell, she is the other side of the same coin. They both sincerely believe in the Almighty — but while Powell finds justification for his evil, Rachel is motivated to nurture and protect stray children. The story of Right Hand-Left Hand, which Powell illustrates with his tattooed knuckles, foreshadows the outcome of their meeting:

Reverend Harry Powell: Hot dog! LOVE’s a winnin’? Yes siree. It’s LOVE that won, and ol’ Left Hand HATE is down for the count!

And yet, although the personification of evil is defeated, the bittersweet footnote is that one cannot protect children forever. We all find out eventually that “it’s a hard world for little things.”

Rachel Cooper: Lord, save little children. You’d think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way. My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot. Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rain’s a-cold. Yet they abide… They abide and they endure.

The Night of the Hunter inspired several songs on the 1999 album Guns by cult band Cardiacs. A cover of one such song (“Wind and Rains is Cold”) is featured on the forthcoming fundraising tribute album Leader of the Starry Skies — A Tribute to Tim Smith. Those who pre-order the album will receive a free bonus album, which features a contribution by my band Bug Prentice. I know, I know, shameless plug…

Reviewed by Rachel
Approx. third viewing

Essential Scene:

It’s the still of night. Rachel Cooper sits on her porch in a rocking chair with a shotgun in her hand.

Reverend Harry Powell came by for John and Pearl earlier in the day, and Rachel saw right through him. She pulled the gun on him but Powell refused to leave. He now sits in her front yard and sings.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; [on this line, the children are shown to be safely in bed.]
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Rachel joins in with hymn, but with slightly different words:

Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, leaning on the everlasting arms.

At this moment, they are human representations of the paradox of religion. One, a kind woman who is guided by her faith to look after and protect orphaned, abandoned and runaway children. The other, a man who selfishly uses God’s name and various bible scriptures as an excuse to kill others. Enemies in life but united in their faith; as they sing together harmoniously.


Rachel Cooper: It’s a hard world for little things

The shadow that Reverend Powell casts as he searches for his innocent would-be victims is as chilling as the shadow it emulates; that of Count Orlok in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Both are personifications of a type of evil, but Powell has God as a protection from all suspicion. People who doubted him were lectured — “He’s a man of the cloth!” — and thus he was able to manipulate and fool people, which put the children in danger.

I don’t think I need go into comparisons of certain recent events, but the realism within his character is why I personally find him more frightening than various horror film murderers.

The realism of the surroundings, however, is played with beautifully in The Night of the Hunter, in another nod to German expressionism. The rural Southern town in which the Harper family live has eerie angles and dark shadows. Everything is real but not quite right. The minute the children escape the house, the world becomes beautiful. When Powell isn’t around, the dark shadows are gone. Rachel Cooper’s farmhouse looks as it should. Is Powell out of his depth in Rachel’s world of goodness and light?








I watched this film with my cat in my arms. I was holding her that bit tighter by the time it ended. You try to protect the “little things” in your life; your children, your pets. The Night of the Hunter shows how necessary it is to protect the vulnerable from the Harry Powells of this world.

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