“Lord save little children…They endure and they abide.”
These words are spoken directly to the camera at the end of Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s directorial debut. This ending reminds me of another classic film, Fritz Lang’s M. M ends with an impassioned, third wall breaking plea, much like Night of the Hunter. M‘s ending is straightforward – it directly implores mothers to keep a better watch on their children. Night of the Hunter’s final message is a little more complex. Instead of a direct request, it ends with a message (given on Christmas Day no less) about the dangerous nature of the world, especially for children. It does end with a hint of optimism: Charles Laughton seems to believe that children are strong enough to survive this world, and that’s a good thing, given the nightmarish world of moral greys that’s portrayed in his film.
Night of the Hunter came out in 1955. It was the directorial debut of actor Charles Laughton, who was famous for his role in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, among other things. Initial reviews didn’t know what to make of the film, especially in America. Francois Truffaut actually championed the film, writing that it was “an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers.” After cinema started undergoing a major shift in the sixties and seventies, critics and filmmakers started to re-evaluate Night of the Hunter, until it eventually became known as one of the all-time greatest films. Now the obligatory Ebert quote:
For his first film, Laughton made a film like no other before or since, and with such confidence it seemed to draw on a lifetime of work. Critics were baffled by it, the public rejected it, and the studio had a much more expensive Mitchum picture (“Not as a Stranger”) it wanted to promote instead. But nobody who has seen “The Night of the Hunter” has forgotten it, or Mitchum’s voice coiling down those basement stairs: “Chillll . . . dren?”
The film opens with the father of the John, the main character, arriving at their house with loot from a bank robbery. He begs John to hide it and then swears John and his sister Pearl to secrecy right before he’s arrested and carted off to jail. Then Reverend Harry Powell arrives. Powell is played by Robert Mitchum, and he creates a hypnotically despicable presence. One of his first scenes sees him sitting, in full preacher attire, in a seedy club watching a woman on stage dance. We’ve already seen him driving for some time, communing with God about women. We’ve already learned that women disgust him, and that he marries easily manipulated women, murders them, and steals their money. He sits brooding in this club, watching this woman dance, flicking his switch-blade knife open like a symbolic erection. Then the police arrest him for stealing a car. He ends up in the same cell as John’s father, thus setting the rest of the film’s events into motion.
Robert Mitchum is incredible in the film. His performance is the backbone of the picture, and it’s still just as effective today. Most of the film sees him coldly attempting to manipulate those around him, while his eyes seem to broadcast an almost childlike petulance that’s genuinely upsetting. Occasionally he loses his cool and breaks out into frothing fits of anger or tears. Sometimes he behaves less manipulatively and more commandingly, ordering around his wife in a scene that conjures up a brilliantly effective taste of an abusive relationship. The term is never used, and Powell’s wealth based motivations are highlighted, but it actually seems to be one of the best depictions of a serial killer going. Make no mistake, money as part of the objective or not, Harry Powell’s religious mania, sexual hang-ups, and fabricated personality clearly mark him as a serial killer in the most Bundy-esque sense of the term. A lot of films tend to over-exaggerate the monstrous or manipulative nature of serial killers, granting them a grand sense of self-awareness and wildly ridiculous goals that bear no resemblance to the realities of the psychosis. It’s fascinating then that this script and performance from the 50s does a better job of portraying a serial murderer than the vast majority of modern films.
Of course Harry Powell learns about the hidden money and, upon release from prison, goes looking for John’s recently widowed mother, Willa. He quickly befriends the poor woman (her gawking neighbours practically demand she screw Powell, but more on that later). John is pretty suspicious though; he almost immediately fears Powell’s motives. Powell works his routine on Willa, and it’s surprisingly hard to watch. She fawns over him, begins trusting him over her children, takes his psychological abuse on their wedding night; she even begins maniacally preaching with him. It’s a fairly disturbing depiction of an abusive, manipulative relationship in a technically rather PG movie. Eventually Willa overhears Powell interrogating Johnny about the money and confronts him. She’s so under his thumb at this point that she barely seems upset. So Reverend Harry Powell cuts her throat and sends her and her car to the bottom of the river. All completely between scenes of course.
The shots of her body after its discovery are a highlight of the film. Willa’s corpse sits in her car, her hair waving around in a manner both hypnotic and dreamlike. Possibly more chilling than the corpse is the scene where Powell calmly evades the locals’ suspicions, going so far as to turn them against Willa and making them sympathize with him. It’s a great scene, with Powell making up new and brilliant lies every time he begins to sense a questioning tone in the conversation, then calculatingly filling in any cracks, discrepancies, or loopholes in his story. He ends up having a tense (and influential) stand-off with the kids before they get a jump on him and run away. They take a boat down the river and end up living with a stern Christian woman, who, shotgun in hand, protects them from the ever-searching Harry Powell. In the end Powell is arrested in a twisted scene that sees John suddenly reliving his father’s arrest with Powell as his dad. Given the way John has denounced Powell’s claims to any fatherly position throughout the film, it seems like a symbolic realization of John’s nightmares, even as things go his way. We then, of course, wind up back where we started this article, with the tough Christian housewife addressing the camera.
The thing is it seems fairly likely she’s going to abuse the hell out of those kids.
It’s hard to claim that with one hundred percent certainty, but it seems very supported by the text. The world of Night of the Hunter is unkind to children, you see, and there are no safe places to turn.
A lot of the characters in the film seem, at first glance, like overwrought stereotypes. There’s an overbearing and gossipy shopkeeper’s wife, there’s her kowtowing husband, there’s a drunk uncle-type figure, a noble Christian housewife, sinful city-slicking teenagers, hell there’s even a swooning, romantically inclined teenage girl. They seem like pretty simplistic, one note characters, but when you start to look at the characters as a whole, and the characters’ actions, something interesting seems to happen. Suddenly the simplistic clichés become indicative of a very, very cynical world-view, courtesy of Charles Laughton.
Take, for instance, the shopkeeper’s wife. She’s a larger than life figure prone to making scandalous statements, meddling in other people’s affairs, and commanding her husband ruthlessly. Some variation on this sort of character has been seen a million times over. For most of the film she’s one of only two female characters, the other being the easily manipulated Willa. At first it comes across as a faintly sexist view of the world – weak minded women and ball-busters only. Here’s where looking at the larger picture sheds an interesting light on the situation. There are only four important male characters in the film. One’s a spineless follower, one’s a robber, one’s a murderer, and one’s an alcoholic. It’s not so much a world view skewed by gender as it is a unanimously dark look at the entire population. Everyone in the film is weak, everyone is corruptible – everyone but John. At least until the end.
But before we get there we must first examine a few more of Night of the Hunter‘s dichotomies. The brief foray into a city that occurs in the later portion of the film is a hilarious stereotype in of itself. Teenage boys lurk by magazine stands detachedly hunting for dates. People hustle under the glow of nightmarish neon signs. It looks like every old-timey country dweller’s unconfirmed suspicions about those dens of sin that are readily available in heavily populated regions. The city, however, pales in comparison to the evils we see happen in the country. We see meddling neighbours push Willa towards marrying a murderer, we see the town whipped up into a religious mania, we see them grow to hate Willa without hesitation, and we see them form a mob with such a bloodlust that John and Pearl have to be snuck away from them. All we see happen in the city is a teenager hang around with boys behind her guardian’s back.
And what a guardian! Rachel Cooper, the aforementioned Christian housewife, takes in strays and cares for them like they’re her own. She tells them biblical tales as bedtime stories and forgives them their trespasses. She appears to be the shining beacon of nobility in an otherwise warped world.
Now here’s where I start to read too much into the proceedings. There hasn’t been a single safe, kind person in the film without some dark side, and I seriously doubt Rachel is any kind of exception. Indeed the movie draws several faintly creepy parallels between her and Harry Powell. First of all they’re both the most devout characters in the film. That in of itself isn’t particularly damning, especially in a film from the fifties where a highly religious character is far less notable than it would be now. One especially tense and dreamlike scene seems to imply a commonality between these two characters that IS rather alarming. Rachel sits in a rocking chair, clutching her shotgun, surrounded by her adopted children. Outside Harry Powell croons, his voice raised in a haunting song. Rachel begins to sing along, and they sit there, each waiting for the other to leave, singing together. By the end of the film John seems far more religious than he was when he started, having been drawn in by Rachel Cooper’s kindness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between John’s mental breakdown (when he associates Powell with his father), Rachel’s devout mentality (complete with an unhealthy dose of sexual repression), the film’s complete lack of redeemable characters, and John’s strange passivity at the end of the film I can’t help but think he might grow up to fill Harry Powell’s despicable shoes.
“Lord save little children” indeed.