Night of the Hunter

One of my top favorite movies of all time—Night of the Hunter. Directed by Charles Laughton, it is cinematic-ally stunning and mesmerizing to watch. If you have not seen this classic released by United Artists in 1955, you need to watch now. Today. Go on. I’ll wait… Here’s the trailer to wet your whistle:

The story written by Davis Grubb and adapted by James Agee, tells the suspenseful and terrifying tale of Reverend Harry Powell, masterfully played by Robert Mitchum, who uses his authority as a preacher to do evil things. Rev. Powell gets put in jail for car theft and becomes cell mates with Ben Harper, played by Peter Graves, who is in jail for bank robbery and the murder of two men. Ben Harper never tells what he did with the $10,000 before he’s hung and the Rev. Powell thinks he can find it. He starts by befriending Harper’s widow, Willa Harper, skillfully played by Shelley Winters and her two children. The children know the truth about the money but have been sworn to secrecy by their father right before he is taken away by police.

It doesn’t take long for Rev. Powell to make an impression on the Spoon’s, the couple who own and operate Spoon’s Ice Cream parlor. Mrs. Spoon takes it upon herself to encourage widow Willa Harper to make herself available to the Rev. as she needs a man to help take care of the children. After some plodding by Mrs. Spoon, Willa gives in and off the Rev and Willa go to get hitched. It’s no secret to the viewer Rev. Powell’s intention but it knowing it doesn’t stop it from happening. We can only sit by and watch helplessly as Rev. Powell battles with little John Harper over where the money has been hid. Of course, it’s in the doll which is the focus in multiple scenes, changing hands from little Pearl Harper and the Rev. If he only knew he had the money in hands the whole time! Eventually, Willa Harper overhears Rev. Powell berating and asking Pearl where the money is. She confronts him and well…let these images explain:

The first time I saw Shelley Winters, Willa Harper, with her hair flowing like the underwater grass, tied to the sunken Model T, I gasped. I knew Rev. Powell had killed her, but the image of her underwater was revolutionary to me. I had never before seen such a beautiful and horrifying image at the same time.

Little John Harper knows something more sinister has happened to his mother than her leaving in the night to visit relatives. He knows it’s time to escape or suffer the same fate. He grabs Pearl and off they go in a jon boat down the river.

John and Pearl escape
On the river
Looking for shelter
“Doesn’t he never sleep?”

John grabs Pearl, gets her back in the jon boat, and down the river. Eventually, they are taken in by Rachel Cooper, played by the fierce Lillian Gish. She takes in stray children, teaches them the word of the Lord, and loves them more than they would get love anywhere else. She’s fiercely protective of these kids and they know it. The movie shifts to scenes in the city where Rachel Cooper sells her produce and eggs to support the family. It is here where Rev. Powell catches up the John and Pearl Harper. Rachel Cooper sees him for who and what he really is and threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t leave.

The Rev. Powell gets caught hiding in the barn. John is overwhelmed and cannot hold the secret of the where the money is any longer and throws the doll splashing paper money all over Rev. Powell and the police as they handcuff and take him away. A lynch mob ensues with the city and townsfolk taking the streets and he is hung for his crime of murdering Willa Harper. John and Pearl are safe in the care of Rachel Cooper and as the movie ends we are left with Rachel saying, “Children are humanities strongest. They abide.” Triumphant music. The End.

Yes, it’s a black and white film. Thank God. I don’t think this film would have had the same impact filmed in color. The imagery and symbolism using shadow, light, silhouette, and music is so gripping and yet I still see something new every time I watch it. With Stanley Cortez as the cinematographer, Laughton is able to create a masterpiece in storytelling through film. Some scenes are like silhouette backdrops so cleanly defined, it gives you a sense of dread as if the world is so huge, no one will escape Rev. Powell’s clutches. While other scenes are down-home depression-era moments when kids ran the neighborhood, religion was like blood in the veins of the townsfolk, and crime only happened in the big city. There are some surreal moments when the Laughton and Cortez seem to want to set you slightly more off your seat with images of a spiderweb, toad, and rabbits along the river. What it does for me; however, is remind me how small we are and how dangerous the big world can be for the small things.

The music for this film is daunting from the opening credits. You know you’re in for it and it immediately sets you on edge. Listen to it here:


It plays throughout and becomes synonymous to Rev. Powell’s presence. Like Vader has his theme, Jaws has his, Michael Myers, etc… all the really good bad guys have their own theme. Just hearing it or thinking of it brings an image of them to mind, doesn’t it ๐Ÿ™‚

I cannot express how important this movie is to see, not just as a film buff; but this movie represents the ability to create nuanced terror with light, sound, shadow, music, and depth cinematic-ally which carry on to other areas of art. Often when I watch this film, I wonder if I could recreate it onstage somehow while retaining the magnificence of it all. To hear Robert Mitchum’s voice echoing in the theatre singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” would probably scare me more in a quiet auditorium than listening in the safety of my own home:

And little Pearl (later dubbed with another voice), singing “Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly” with her sweet little voice in the boat:

If these stills and clips don’t inspire you to watch this film, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Go to Amazon and rent or buy it but whatever you do…just watch it. And then watch it again.

2 thoughts on “Night of the Hunter”

  1. I just watched it for the first time tonight. Powerful. Perfect casting. Robert Mitchum especially. I’ve seen this over and over again in films, the scariest bad guys are usually the ones who are handsome and who would otherwise be the leading man in a romantic movie.

    The black and white cinematography…amazing…the “chapel” scene in the bedroom spoke volumes with so few words; Cooper’s house and barn as the kids come ashore…surreal.

    The image that haunts and fascinates me the most though is shelly winters’ underwater; it’s eerily beautiful and mesmerizing; I had to rewind and watch it again. Regarding your idea to make this into a play, it would be intriguing to see how that scene could be staged.

    Anyway, thanks for suggesting the film. I love a tantalizing thriller that had a minimal amount of violence…sometimes the threat of harm is more frightening than the actual act itself.

    Now I need to go watch a comedy before heading to bed ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I’m so glad you liked Night of the Hunter, too! I love thrillers and I usually have to watch a comedy after a good one too :)Thanks for the comment!

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