Screening Log #18: Night of the Hunter (1955)

Night of the Hunter PosterWritten by James Agee based on the novel by Davis Grubb

Directed by Charles Laughton

Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish




As I said before, Night of the Hunter is, to my mind, a singular film. It is a singular not only insofar as it was Charles Laughton‘s sole feature behind the camera as director, but also in terms of the strange and wonderful way that Laughton constructs the film. Something of an oddly stitched-together film, Night of the Hunter is part thriller, part chase film, part fable, part cautionary tale, part social commentary and part comedy; each of these tones and beats is stitched together to the rest by two crucial threads: the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as Rev. Harry Powell and Laughton’s impeccable sense for composition, his use of light and shadow.

Right angles of darkness and the left hand.The disparate elements of the film hang together cohesively – if somewhat oddly – because Laughton’s visuals and Mitchum’s performance create a unified, beautiful, and malevolent universe in which all of these ideas work together. Laughton regularly frames his interior shots with stark angles of black shadow and intense light, playing the chiaroscuro of the scene to absurdly dramatic heights that recall the emotive angles of German expressionist films such as Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This is especially evident when Powell’s intentions toward Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her children are less than noble. The spaces that Laughton creates in these instances are skewed, nearly impossible in terms of their physical realities and how the camera relates, but they work to underscore the unnatural and terrifyingly stark world that Powell inhabits; framing himself as a reverend and a man carrying out the Lord’s will – early scenes of Powell conversing with God while driving a stolen car away from his last murder work to demonstrate that Powell’s derangement is genuine, not a con to ingratiate himself into society – Powell perverts the perceived natural order of the world, in which those working on behalf of the Lord would be doing good.

Laughton contrasts these claustrophobic and surreal interior scenes when the children, John and Pearl, escape Powell and begin their journey down the river in a small boat. Their journey begins with an escape to the boat wherein Powell’s pursuit is hindered by the underbrush at the riverbank; nature itself stands in Powell’s way, literally and figuratively, from apprehending the children and doing them harm. The section of the film where the children float downstream is framed by tranquil pastoral imagery and Laughton focuses his camera several times on the animals on the riverbank, the rabbits and turtles, spider, etc. The natural order functions to watch over the children here. Laughton complicates this rather simplistic and naive binary later in the film when he shows an owl hunting a small rabbit while Lillian Gish‘s Ms. Cooper protects the children from Powell. Nature is not without its own implicit dangers as Cooper observes that “It’s a hard world for little things.”

Celestial ChildrenThe strength and goodness of children is the main theme around which Laughton structures the picture, beginning with Ms. Cooper speaking to a chorus of children. The first images seen are the faces of these people foregrounded against the night sky, Cooper speaking in broad terms of Biblical issues of good and evil genealogies.  This opening establishes the film’s allegorical or fable-like qualities, dealing in broad universal strokes and terms rather than a specific narrative. Laughton’s starkly black and white palette and skillful employment of the contrast between the two speaks to the broadly moralistic quality implicit in the fable. The film’s moral lessons, however, are not as simple and straight-forward as these oppositions would maintain.

Cooper and PowellLaughton develops a contrast between Powell and Cooper in nearly every regard. Both Powell and Cooper represent surrogate parental figures for the children, deprived of their natural parents through a pair of illegal acts in their father’s theft of money and killing of two men and then their mother’s murder at the hands of Powell to get the money he’d hidden before going to prison. Each character has a Biblical tie insofar as Powell purports himself to be a preacher and Cooper reads scripture stories to her brood of children at night before bed. Each character represents an opposed version of these elements, but not so disparate as to be unrelated and both function under the broad umbrella of spiritual and familial roles. Cooper as the good-intentioned care-giver and Powell as the

Agee’s script also complicates the traditional, maybe puritanical, sense of Biblical living being good; Powell is cast as a repressed man, his drive for violence against women manifesting itself as a reaction to the desires that they inspire in him. Following his first murder Powell is arrested at a gentleman’s club, watching a girl dance, his switchblade snapping open in his pocket. The phallic metaphor is too obvious to miss.  Powell’s unhealthy disdain for the carnal extends even to the wedding bed, chastising Willa on their wedding night for expecting the marriage to be consummated, standing her before the mirror and claiming she is unclean. Icey Spoon also erroneously espouses a sexless marriage, stating that a “woman’s a fool to marry for [sex]. That’s somethin’ for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream. ” Her moral footing on this issue is dissolved when she is later at the head of a howling lynch mob set upon the hanging of Powell, running through the streets with torches and destroying a restaurant.

Like meadow grass under a flood.Laughton fills his film to the brim and beyond with asides and (not so) subtly social commentary, tying the universal themes at work to particular social concerns. The end result is a sort of magical realist fable, intensely performed and timelessly composed, an explication of the very struggle that Harry Powell has tattooed on his knuckles, between love and hate. Indeed, what makes Powell such a terrifying and memorable character is that it is impossible to doubt his conviction behind his story and equally impossible that his definitions of love and hate are true in the world.


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