The Night of the Hunter is a dark, southern gothic, noirish biblical fable; like a fairy tale, it explores the nature of good and evil. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is at the center of this tale; he is a dark and ominous man. He is a Revered and uses his religion to control, manipulate, and ultimately destroy lives. Christianity plays a unique role in the film; it shows how it is used not only for redemption but for destruction and death. Harry Powell uses his dark and alluring charm to draw people in so he can exploit and eventually betray and murder them. In the beginning, Harry talks to God, revealing he has killed anywhere from 6 to 12 people. Harry brings the wrath of God with him everywhere he goes. Harry acts as an Old Testament God, full of malice and destruction, and also assumes the role of an Anti-Christ figure, using religion to manipulate. He is a false prophet, using malevolence that is present in the Old Testament rather than the benevolence present in the New Testament. He has love and hate tattooed across both of his hands and tells people the story of good and evil by gripping his hands together and showing the battle between good and evil.
Harry eventually makes his way to the home of Willa Harper (Shelly Winters), whose husband has recently been hung for the murder of two people after he killed them during a robbery. Harry was an inmate alongside Willa’s husband Ben (Peter Graves), and he wants to get his hands on the $10,000 that Ben stole. Ben hid the money by giving it to his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), and they swore never to reveal where it is hidden. He manipulates the town folk, including Willa’s boss Mrs. Spoon (Evelyn Varden), who is immediately swayed by Harry because of his connection to God. Mrs. Spoon convinces Willa to take Harry on as a husband, and she does. Harry terrorizes both Willa and the children using his religion to guilt them and betray them.
After Harry and Willa get married, Harry condemns Willa for her sexual desires. He links a woman’s sex to birth, denying that she needs it for pleasure. Sexual females are usually at the heart of film noirs, acting as Femme Fatales; their sexuality is linked to darkness, manipulation, and evil. Harry connects Willa’s lustful desire to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Femme Fatales often fill this role as the temptatious one who brings about destruction and sin but The Night of the Hunter subverts this by having Harry’s condemnation being manipulative and his control of her sexuality as his way of gaining power. Harry eventually murders Willa after she overhears him manipulating and abusing her children so he can locate the missing money. The shot of her floating in the water is horrific, nightmarish, and also beautiful because of the wonderfully shot composition and cinematography.
Charles Laughton and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez evoke old German Expressionist films. Their use of light and shadows create a gothic atmosphere; we also see this in the production design of the film. There are sharp angles that make the world, the houses, and the landscape seem dangerous and haunted by evil. The movie classifies as a film noir, but it also is reminiscent of horror movies, specifically Universal Monster movies. There is a shot of Harry chasing the children up the basement stairs, his arms reaching out for them. He looks like a monster, hunting his prey. The scene gives off a vampiric vibe, much like the famous shot of Nosferatu’s shadow as he ascends the stairs.
Also, I must mention Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish); like Harry Powell, is a religious person; however, unlike him, she uses her knowledge for love and kindness rather than death and destruction. Harry seeks to destroy the children for lying to him, while Rachel protects them with affection and gentleness. There is a paradox in Christianity between God’s wrath and Christ’s kindness. Harry and Rachel replicate this paradox. Religion, specifically Christianity, is not all good or bad. People can use it to exploit, gain power, manipulate, and harm; or, they can use it to display kindness, love, and affection. We see the dangers of the former in characters such as Mrs. Spoon, who falls for everything that Harry lies about hook, line, and sinker. But, we also see in Rachel Cooper how she lets religion guide her to be a kind and moral person, not seeking to turn away people for their vices, but instead help them understand their place in the world.
The Night of the Hunter was the only feature film that Charles Laughton made. It is a shame that he didn’t make more because this is one of the greatest movies of the 1950’s inspiring everyone from Martin Scorsese to Guillermo Del Toro. Shockingly it was also not well received on initial release but is now regarded as a masterpiece. It is a dark tale but one filled with hope. Everyone should watch this movie; it is an excellent and well-crafted masterpiece that shows the power of cinema.