Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 09 October 2005
Source MGM DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Charles Laughton’s only film as director, The Night of the Hunter is a strange, mysterious object in the landscape of fifties American cinema. A study, through the figure of the evil serial-killer preacher Harry Powell, in the horror to be found in man, it is not played as a horror film as such, but rather some kind of bizarre fairy tale. We are never truly horrified by the events of the story; instead we’re mesmerised by the film’s strange beauty.
This is a film of oppositions: between absolute good and evil; the world of adults and the world of children; male and female; civilisation and nature; sexuality and asexuality; and two readings of the Bible, one that stresses a vengeful God against one that emphasises mercy and forgiveness. This clash of oppositions is most famously symbolised in the tattoos on the fingers of both of Harry Powell’s hands, L-O-V-E on one, H-A-T-E on the other; and this struggle between love and hate is a literal one between the figures of Miss Cooper and Harry Powell. Moreover, the visual style that Laughton chose for the film gives clear expression to this dialectical spirit, veering between a light, bright, open American Pastoralism drawn from D.W. Griffith and a dark, unsettling, expressionist world of shadows (German Expressionism via Universal horror movies of the thirties). The casting reinforces this too, Griffith star Lillian Gish as Miss Cooper being set against post-War bad boy Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell.
This clash of visual styles — both between scenes and between shots within the same scene — underlines the resolutely non-naturalistic tone to Laughton’s aesthetic. His blatant use of studio sets for many exterior scenes — in particular, the river along which John and Pearl make their escape from Harry Powell — is a further aspect to this, and the total effect is to create a strange, bewitching, magical world.
This contrast in visual style can occur in the intercutting between one scene and another, as when the light and open space of the river setting as John fishes in a boat with Uncle Birdie are opposed to the high-contrast shadows of Powell’s revival meeting. This visual contrast has a determined symbolic value: on the one side the warmth, humanity and humour of Uncle Birdie, on the other the twisted, death-inflected religion of Preacher Powell.
This symbolic value is even more apparent when occurring within a single scene, such as the single shot of Powell’s dark figure in the foreground with the soft tones of the riverside picnic behind him. Or there’s the significant way diffuse light and dark shadows are played off one another in Powell’s first appearance at Spoon’s ice cream shop, when Powell first arrives in town (in pursuit of Ben Harper’s hidden money) and makes the acquaintance of Harper’s widow Willa and the children, Pearl (who has the money hidden in her soft doll) and the suspicious John. Shots including Powell are characterised by lines and blocks of dark shadow, whereas in the reaction shots of John alone the light is diffuse and there is no shadow.
The aesthetic at work here is expressionist, pictorial, symbolic, and non-naturalistic, and there are a host of striking examples throughout the film: how on his wedding night with Willa, Powell stands up from the bed to turn himself into a black silhouette which is instantly illuminated when he switches on the light; the sharp, knife-like shadows and edges in the children’s bedroom when Powell tries interrogating them; the diagonal blocks of shadow that create a light-toned triangle over Willa’s bed prior to Powell’s murder of her; or the silhouette-effect that we get from the side-view of Powell and the children going up and down the cellar stairs.
There’s no attempt at any kind of realism when John and Pearl, escaping from Powell, drift down the river in a skiff. The magical quality of their journey is enhanced by the obvious studio set, the fake twinkling stars in the backdrop sky, and the overdetermined positioning of animals in extreme foreground (a cobweb, a frog, two rabbits) behind which the children drift in middle-distance. The inauthenticity of the set is the key to the authenticity of the emotional experience of this sequence. At the end of the sequence, when the flow of the river brings the skiff to rest, enveloped by rushes, magically protecting the sleeping children as it were, the camera rises up to take in the wide expanse of (fake) twinkling stars, acting as a farewell to this whole river trip, for Miss Cooper now comes on the scene.
Miss Cooper is the film’s force of absolute good, in battle against Powell’s absolute evil. She even battles Powell in song when he stakes out her house at night intoning his signature hymn “Leaning on the everlasting arms”; she, sitting inside guarding the sleeping children with her shotgun, takes up the tune but changes the lyrics to “leaning on Jesus”, reflecting the Old-New Testament dichotomy that Powell and Miss Cooper respectively embody.
It’s important to understand that Laughton is utterly sincere in his portrayal of Miss Cooper. There’s no Lynchian irony at work here, as in the way Lynch encourages us in Blue Velvet to simultaneously endorse and mock Sandy’s naïve innocence. Laughton believes in Miss Cooper. She offers a spirit of religion that is opposed to Powell’s. Where his is violent, vengeful, sanctimonious, hypocritical and insincere, hers is loving, caring, compassionate and merciful.
Miss Cooper is the only adult in the film who succeeds in doing anything on behalf of John and Pearl. All the other adults singularly fail to protect them, from Ben Harper’s misconceived robbery-murder which brings the threat of Harry Powell onto his children; through Willa Harper’s failure to see through Powell, a failure which brings him into the children’s home; Icey and Walt Spoon’s similar failure in regard to Powell (their reappearance at the end of the film as leaders of a lynch mob is hardly an improvement); Uncle Birdie’s decline in drunkenness instead of his promised offer of help; to the anonymous woman doling out food who can only offer a tired “Oh, go away, go away” when John tells her he has no parents.
Instead, Miss Cooper does offer protection and love to her brood of strays and orphans. (There’s an affectionate comic tone to the way Laughton shoots the scenes in the town of Miss Cooper leading her children like a mother hen leading her chicks.) In fact, Laughton frames The Night of the Hunter at beginning and end through the perspective of Miss Cooper. At the beginning insets of Miss Cooper’s face and of some smiling children appear against a backdrop of twinkling stars in a prologue to the film’s story. In this prologue we first get a song evoking the twin themes of dreaming and a child’s fear of the dark (“the hunter in the night”), and then from Miss Cooper a Bible lesson warning against “false prophets” and teaching that no good can ever come from evil. (Harry Powell, whom we now move to, is the clear object of this lesson.) The effect here is naïve and sincere (and not a little bizarre, too), conjuring up a fairytale world — with strong Christian overtones — of good and evil, black and white.
After the defeat of Harry Powell, the film’s epilogue is again in this loving and good fairytale Christian world, significantly set on Christmas Day. Here, Miss Cooper leaves the film with its final spoken message, that children survive the evil of the world, “they abide and they endure”; and the film’s final shot is of her snow-covered cottage, a protective haven in the falling snow. As much of a cliché as this image may be, there’s no doubting Laughton’s — and the film’s — total and sincere belief and commitment to it. There is not a trace of irony.
While Miss Cooper’s archetypal character remains unchanged, Powell’s does change — or rather, we should say, Mitchum’s performance and Mitchum’s/Laughton’s interpretation of that character change. From the start, no redeeming qualities are offered for Harry Powell — he is nothing more than the evil, hatred, violence, misogyny, and hypocrisy that he expresses. But there is increasingly a comic tone to him. Perhaps it’s there in the way Powell twists and freezes his body in a strange tableau in the bedroom, then suddenly relaxes as if he’s finally remembered what he’s there for (to fetch his knife and murder Willa); but it’s definitely there in the sly way he sneaks a glance upwards each time he lies to the Spoons about Willa’s “disappearance”. It’s a performance that invites the audience’s complicity in the sardonic humour on display.
This approach intensifies in the scene in the cellar. When Powell follows the children down the stairs, he contorts his body into some kind of misshapen monster; at the end of the scene, when he chases the children up the stairs, he lurches after them, arms outstretched, in imitation of a thirties Universal horror monster. In the interim, the scene is played for slapstick, with John dropping a shelf of preserves on Powell’s head and Powell slipping and falling in the chase. Later on, too, there’s the comic business of Powell trying to crawl under the front steps of Miss Cooper’s house in pursuit of the children.
The scene in the cellar is also where Powell’s associations with the animal come to the fore, qualities which are increasingly developed through the rest of the film, in the animal-like sounds Powell starts to emit: the shriek and then the low guttural growl when John slams the cellar door on his hand; his wild thrashing through the bushes by the riverside; his roar as he stands chest-deep in the water while the children escape; and finally, when Miss Cooper shoots him, his high-pitched shrieks and squeals as he leaps up and down outside and into the barn.
So, Powell’s is a character marked by evil and violence, associated with the animal and the non-human (“Don’t he ever sleep?” asks John), and whose ultimate defeat is signalled in the way his threat is undermined by the increasing comic tone brought to the portrayal. This defeat is also predicted from the prologue, for the voice of Miss Cooper is the vision of the film. That vision is the simple one of an archetypal fairytale, but the richness of the film is derived from the sometimes perplexing mixture of elements: dark and light, realist and non-naturalistic, lyrical and expressionist, fearful and comic, mundane and magical. It’s a one-off in a directing career (Laughton directed no other film), and it’s a unique American masterpiece.