Robert Mitchum’s silhouetted figure must be one of cinema’s most menacing presences. It lurks outside clapboard houses and swaggers its way across expanses of Depression-hit West Virginia. Its stark Puritanical dress provides an eerily alien vision as its warm, rich voice repeats a trademark 19th-century gospel refrain: ‘Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms’. Mitchum as the Preacher, Reverend Harry Powell, does lean on God: he quotes the scripture; he talks of plans to build a tabernacle; he gives dramatic demonstrations of moral battles between good and evil, wrestling his tattooed fists (LOVE and HATE) like a Biblical Punch and Judy show. But, in a delicious treat of dramatic irony, we – the audience – see that this leaning is not heartfelt belief, but a reliance on religious doctrine to manipulate those around him.
The tension we feel as Mitchum cons and schemes his way through 93 minutes of spectacular cinema is very occasionally blackly comic, but mostly painfully unbearable. When Powell takes up with a young widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), in an attempt to find a stash of stolen money hidden by her dead husband, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is alone in seeing the preacher’s true colours. That the only person to divine the truth is an easily dismissed child creates a throat-tightening level of suspense, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1948). Hitchcock spent decades honing his narrative techniques but, as a critical and commercial failure on its release, The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton’s only feature as director. We can only dream what he might have created in the wake of this stunning debut.
‘…Dream, little one, dream’
The film opens with stars hung like beads across a make-believe velvet sky. Five innocent faces appear from the darkness while the sagacious narrator, Rachel Cooper (beautifully acted by Lillian Gish, star of the silent era), intones Sunday school lessons and makes an ominous warning to ‘beware of false prophets’. The camera cuts to an outside aerial shot of children scattering in a game of hide and seek. A crescendo of orchestral music fills our ears as a child points to two stocking-covered legs laid out on basement steps. We can only imagine the horrific end meted out to the victim. These succinctly shot opening scenes set out several themes and dichotomies at the heart of The Night of the Hunter: childhood innocence versus adult violence; dreams and fairy tales versus reality; and how action differs from the written word.
The Night of the Hunter may appear to be a simple, childlike story of the wrestling hands of good and evil, but it is much richer than that. When Rachel Cooper duets with Harry Powell, cradling her shotgun, prepared to fire if necessary, we see two competing forces, but both are singing a hymn to Jesus and both are ready to enact violence. Subtle parallels or ‘twins’ pop up throughout the film. The two bedroom scenes between Willa and Harry mark a beautiful contrast between Harry’s calculated, dogmatic rhetoric and Willa’s own feverish, heartfelt belief, gained in the wake of her suffering. The expressionist lighting in the latter scene is a work of art; the bedroom becomes a spot-lit triangular chapel while Willa lies out on the bed, like a saint’s stone tomb, her head glowing with a brilliant halo. The triangular church effect is echoed in the bedroom scene at Rachel Cooper’s house as the children huddle for shelter while Harry Powell waits outside, just as he earlier waited outside the Harpers’ home. Once you become aware of these fascinating symmetries, the film becomes much greater and finer textured. We see the hangman’s differing reactions to the task of execution. We see the differences between John’s father and Harry Powell, both wrongdoers in the eyes of the law. We see the apple recurring as a gift of purity and innocence.
The film’s credited scriptwriter, James Agee, wrote critically of his work in a letter to a friend: ‘Most of it has hung somewhere between satire and what I suppose would be called “moralistic” writing: I wish I could get both washed out of my system and get anywhere near what the real job of art is: attempt to state things as they seem to be, minus personal opinion of any sort.’ I would argue that while Night of the Hunter does deal with simple moral questions and presents satirical views of religion and society, it reveals itself to be more complex and thought-provoking than at first impression; just like the gullible cast, perhaps we are too ready to buy into those fists of ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’.
Agee worked on the script as an adaptation of a novel by Davis Grubb (although due to disagreements between Laughton and Agee, just how much of Agee’s script ended up on the screen has been contested). Both Grubb and Agee aimed to present the reality of the Depression through their writing; Grubb in his novel and Agee in the text of his 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which presented the era-defining photography of Walker Evans. The images captured by Evans’s camera are partially re-created in the film as John and his sister Pearl take to the countryside, their clothes turning to rags and their faces etched with grime; but, in parallel to this realist aesthetic, there are several stylised, fantastical sequences, sculpted by Stanley Cortez’s high-contrast lighting and Walter Schumann’s haunted music. They are quite possibly some of the strangest, most beautiful scenes I have seen on film. Perhaps that’s because they surprise the audience, nestled away among more conventional narrative. They provide a wonderful lilting counterpoint to taut, suspenseful scenes. In bringing together these two different approaches, Laughton made a unique and sublimely stunning film. It enchants, haunts and frightens in equal measures.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms…
Watch the trailer: