Directed by Charles Laughton
The Night of the Hunter is a horror movie, I’d say, and what’s so fascinating about horror films is that when analyzed years later, you can get a sense of what scared audiences (and thus the greater social world) at a certain time in history. For example, monsters used to be all the rage, and while they still are, they used to be the horror genre. Frankenstein, is the character I’m thinking of. Then you have zombies and vampires, but you also have periods of time where body snatching movies became really popular (during the Red Scare). There are films where the danger is out of this world (arriving like in a comet as in The Blob, 1958) and films where the danger comes from deep within us, whether accessed through mind control, drugs, or aliens invasions.
In The Night of the Hunter, the ‘hunter’ is a preacher, a man whose devout faith goes mostly unchallenged yet runs rampant with extremely outdated (if they ever weren’t outdated) ideas of life, marriage and religion. This is in a time where I have to imagine that most people were religious. Of course, to me everyone was religious all the way up until around 1963 when it seems to me it all began to die down a little, but this is just a feeling, I really have no idea.
The preacher, a man named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) takes joy in killing women whom he thinks live immorally. When we meet him, he watches a woman dancing seductively and flips out his swiss army knife, but then he is promptly arrested for a previous crime. Prison doesn’t faze Powell, and it seems as though nothing does. He’s a character driven by his own self-righteousness and a self-prescribed mission to rid the world of people he might consider evil-doers. We never really see him confer with or pray to God, from what I can remember. His sense of religious intensity is a perverted form of good ‘ol Christianity. It takes the form of Christianity, allowing him to blend in so easily with the small town around him once he’s released from prison, but his justification for murder could be anything. He probably only chose to base his reasoning for murder in religion because it’s what was acceptable at the time. In other words, Powell’s justification for murder changes as the world changes. He could still exist today, but he would have another reason for doing what he’s doing.
I set this all up to highlight one odd, important aspect of Powell’s character. While in prison, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man accused of murder and robbery who confesses to Powell (through the preacher’s urging) that he has stolen $10,000 and hidden it somewhere only his kids now. Harper is eventually executed, and when Powell is released, he heads to the Harper family home, intent on getting his hands on that $10,000. This felt particularly strange to me, because Powell’s evil at first felt so pure, that it’s hard for me to imagine him being driven by anything other than his warped self-righteousness. Money almost seems too simple of a motivation, one that could attract any seedy character. So why go through the effort of making Powell so religious and psychopathic only to have him go looking for some money?
Powell’s way of getting that money, though, is unlike any other seedy character. He quickly assimilates into the small town where an older couple, quickly smitten with him, decide that Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), Ben’s widow, should marry the preacher. After some brief reluctance, she agrees. When the preacher shows up in the Harper home, the boy, John, is deathly afraid of him. He and his sister, Pearl, know where the money is, but John will do anything to prevent the preacher from getting his hands on it, following Ben’s final instructions to him before his arrest. Pearl, on the other hand, is too young to know any better, so she falls for the preacher’s act like everyone else.
Over the course of the second act, the preacher murders Willa, telling the townsfolk that she left him in the night, and after a small scuffle, John and Pearl escape, floating down river away from the preacher. They arrive in another small town where an older woman, Rachel (Gloria Castillo), adopts them as two of her own, alongside her three other daughters. Rachel is hard to get a read on at first. She is at once welcoming and incredibly stern. Her religious faith lies in opposition to the preacher’s. Where he uses it to dictate his murderous actions, she uses it to help better the lives of her children, all of which seem to be adopted.
The preacher inevitably shows up, and in a climactic confrontation, Rachel shoots him before the cops arrest him. As John watches the preacher get shoved to the ground by the police, he cannot help but remember the same scene playing out with his father at the beginning of the story. He begins to cry for the man, forgetting himself, and throwing all the money at him.
Of course this isn’t a real change of heart, but only a momentarily break. The film ends with the new family, led by Rachel, celebrating Christmas.
So the film feels very concerned with two things: religious fervor and money. And yet, the religious aspect of various characters feels unrelated to the plot. As long as the preacher remained as unhinged as he was, the story would still work as it does, even if he doesn’t claim to be a man of faith. Rachel’s faith, while also dictating her actions, similarly feels beside the point. She is simply a kind person, willing to take in children off the street. She might identify these decisions as deeply ground in her religious faith (she cites the story of baby Moses drifting down the river like John and Pearl), but I would guess that she’d be the same person even as an atheist. In either case, both characters’ versions of religious faith are superficial justifications or explanations of their various attitudes and life philosophies.
Then you have the money which only ever acts as a MacGuffin, driving the story forward only because we understand intrinsically why a guy would want a lot of money. We all want a lot of money, so that’s all you need to know. But The Night of the Hunter lies somewhere in between the two polar opposites (in some ways) of religion and money. It still doesn’t completely feel right to me that the preacher is so driven by his faith and by money, and because of that I can’t help but think he’s not really driven by either, or he’s completely driven by the money and this only emphasizes how phony his version of religion is.
In the end the money never goes anywhere, and it’s not clear if it ever would. The preacher doesn’t get his hands on it, and what would two kids have ever done with $10,000 anyways? It always felt a little futile, and I think that’s the point. People act certain ways because of reasons deeply ingrained in themselves, but they (and we) are likely to ascribe our decisions and values to more concrete elements of ourselves, at least at that time. “I do this because of that,” but this film, I think, shows characters who really don’t understand why they do things, but it doesn’t matter.
The title of the film, with the term “hunter,” suggests that the preacher was always, is always and will always be a hunter. We are more primitive than we think, basically, and certain roles will always be filled by certain people, but as we become more civilized (whatever that means), these roles begin to be a little harder to identify.
This film is rather stunning, technically, for its time. There are impressively composed shots, many that stand out even by today’s standards. In some cases Laughton uses forced perspective or constructs an underwater tank to show a crashed car beneath a lake. Most of the film (if not all) was filmed on a set, and the result is something that feels very noir-ish and haunting.