Edited June 2016
One of the most perturbed and disturbing parables of childhood adversity ever found in fiction, The Night of the Hunter is primarily famous for one thing: a magnetic all-time tempter in Robert Mitchum, starring as a criminal disguised as a preacher who stalks two children, John and his younger sister Pearl. The film ultimately ruined director Charles Laughton’s budding career (he had been a respected actor for several decades, but we can’t but see his career behind the camera slipping away with every depraved, anti-realist shot). But today it wears this fact like a badge of honor. Accolades have been lumped upon the film left and right in recent years, but the primary target is still, in regrettably narrow fashion, Mitchum’s undeniably inhuman evil. The commendations are entirely deserved but something of a shame – Mitchum, sometimes quite literally, towers over the film, but it’s a far more challenging, innovative, and spellbinding effort than one performance can muster.
Jame’s Agee’s mournful, soul-shaken script (based on a book by Davis Grubb that clearly spoke to Agee’s childhood experiences) and Laughton’s genre-crossing direction in tow, the film works not purely because of Mitchum but because its storytelling – equal parts Southern Gothic tone poem and German Expressionist parlor trick – conjures a surreal world for Mitchum to slither around in. The filmmaking legitimizes him, giving him a depleted, damaged energy to feed off of and human souls to take. It establishes the storybook geography that could create, and hopefully contain, him. In 1955, it was positively radical. Today it is all the more so. Laughton’s anxious beauty looks into our soul and never comes back.
Many find it difficult to wrap their head around The Night of the Hunter. Fitting – it is a film that refuses to be reconciled, all the more so for how deceptively simple it is. Two children find themselves prey to a convict masquerading as a preacher (Robert Mitchum). He knows their father told him where he had hidden money he had stolen to provide for his family, and Mitchum’s preacher will stop at nothing to get it. But the way the story is told often veers off into territory that at first seems silly or artificial, glittering in its refusal to cater to logic or linearity. One moment, we have the preacher telling a woefully and intentionally simplistic version of the battle for “good” and “evil” with his hands, the next we have a recent widow marrying the preacher seemingly right after meeting him. Toward the end of the film, Harry Powell’s reaction to a gunshot seems perpendicular to his menacing, almost omnipotent actions throughout the film, and the film’s conclusion is so drastically opposed tonally from what preceded that it seems like a disturbed flicker from another film.
What to make of the film then? One thing is for sure. It’s one of the most transcendental visual lightning bolts ever committed to celluloid, a feat of fury to rival Murnau’s Sunrise almost thirty years before-hand. Filmed in the style of German Expressionism, meant to evoke a more secretive truth behind the scenes of normative reality, even at the expense of photo-realism, the film is simply a wonder to behold. Much has been written, about the film’s famed riverboat scene, where the two children escape their hometown only to arrive at an uncommonly, inhumanly warm new abode that doesn’t seem to mirror any true location one would find in heartland America during the Great Depression. On their way, we’re treated to surreptitious close-ups of animals which obscure the children, bizarre, even abstract shadows, and grandiose camera angles which enshrine a sense of beguiling, damaged wonder, as well as the impending sense of dread, the film emphasizes so wonderfully. As vivacious and suffused with hysterical delirium as Mark Twain’s river-rapid depiction of childhood imagination confronting and disrupting bourgeois inhibition, this river is a startling vision of imagination run amok, a beacon of freedom from social norms, and a tempest of dead-end horror as the children are flung into the bedeviled pandemonium of the unknown world outside the town they’ve presumably lived their entire young lives in. It would be carnivalesque – albeit the devil’s carnival – if it wasn’t so mournful.
Alive with the irresponsible possibility of any great work of fiction, the film reveals hidden wonders in every scene. Early on there’s a masterful shot where Powell stands over Shelley Winter’s Willa Harper, his new wife and the mother of the two children. She lies in bed, her arms crossed, her body entombed in a coffin of starlight. She is not yet physically dead, but she’s dead inside. The light confines her, as do the walls of the room confine the two and our view of them. The room seems impossibly long but thin, with the roof tilted as if into hell (this shot would seem impossible in a real house, as though the camera is outside but peeking in through a hole in the wall yet not at all blinded by doing so).
Meanwhile, Powell looks up at the stars, as the music shifts from wondrous and naïve, almost dreamlike, to nightmarish and deathless. His frame is elongated and lanky, his arms distorted and grotesque. His back is curved forward in an impossible manner. It’s hard not to think of Cesare, the deranged killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as Powell turns his head to face his new wife, self-defeat and demented evil battling on his face. Light is usually a safe space. But here the light is more complicated; it marks exactly the spot where Willa is to be killed. But if her marriage has rendered her dead already, perhaps the light saves her, scraping away worldly offers and providing a pathway into an otherworldly freedom, even when she’s killed by the devil himself. Here, as throughout the film, the music slithers from quietly childlike to almost impossibly oppressive and booming. The sound beckons Mitchum, daring him to interrupt it, to violate it, to obliterate it with his sonorous voice.
What does it all convey? Nothing in the film feels of earth, and it’s so forceful and so willfully composed that it’s impossible to see this as anything but intentional. As the film’s narrative moves with a spry, inhuman urgency, going from scene to scene as if free-associatively distorting causal logic (why are Powell and Harper marrying so quickly? When did they get to know each other?), it approaches us more like an invasive dream than anything else.
But there’s something else in the murky waters and muddy banks of the river, hidden beneath tall cat-grass but waiting to be discovered nonetheless. Within, we find entirely more human forms of terror. Early in the film, John’s father steals to help his family survive the Great Depression, which in turn leads to the events which inform the rest of the film. Screenwriter James Agee, himself famous not only as a film critic but his own novel A Death in the Family, has inscribed in his filmic dream-world the after-effects of his own father dying while Agee was still a child. The film is depicted through the eyes of a child, a child who is wise beyond his years and has to grow up all too quickly, but a child nonetheless, and one who can’t completely understand the world around him even as he is forced to. The relationship between his mom and Mitchum’s Reverend Powell may seem fluttering because that is how it would seem from a child’s point of view, a perspective caught up in the wonder of a world it doesn’t know and which can only but see it through distorted, artificial lenses to render the wonderful in the mundane. The thought that we can’t get a supposedly “realistic” vision of the film’s events is the scariest thought of all – it forces us to understand the tormented haunt that drives the beauty.
What can be said about Mitchum’s performance, in one of the all-time movie roles. He deals out spine-tingling chills as effectively as countrified paternalist teddy-bear humanism, bleeding the two together into a stew of soul-sucking human despair. It’s not hard to find yourself caught up in his bids for innocence, but his voice, never wavering, renders itself unmooringly troubling even off-screen, always a beacon of things to come. His intonation, muscular and cavernous, could fill any devil’s shoes, but he’s also booming with righteous fury and indignant power, perhaps god’s, and that’s the point. He plays the part as layers of performance upon performance to disavow any semblance of the character’s true identity to anyone around him – he is just as at home as a caring father figure and as a beacon of destruction. And he clearly enjoys every second of it – he wraps his way around every word and strangles every ounce of black energy out of it.
Through Reverend Powell, we see another more base and more common fear, the kind that may have held a young child growing up in the South hostage like no other: the fear that the savior who listens to prayers and forges a personal relationship with anyone who listens may be the devil in disguise. He’s not just a devil then, but a Southern devil, a religious savior come to take us all home that’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing meant not to save us from poverty but to serve as its agent of harm. The film is undeniably filtered through Christian imagery here, but it uses its fable-like, exaggerated storytelling to have us come to terms with not only it, but ourselves.
The ending of the film is particularly challenging. Late in the film, when Powell is captured and apprehended by the police, John breaks down, reacting as he did when his father was apprehended in the same way at the beginning of the film. Throughout, Powell had been presenting himself to those around him as a would-be parent for the child, something only John was unwilling to believe. He had charmed his way into the community with his airs of parenthood, but couldn’t charm John. Now, in his capture and loss, Powell may have truly taken control of the child in a way he never could while chasing after them. Likewise, while on his way to execution, the town that had loved him so reacts with violence and dread, exclaiming “lynch him” in stark opposition to the convivial “golly gee” they had conveyed earlier in the film, as if eager to hide from themselves how fooled they had been by Powell. In doing so, they reflect how Powell had brought misery and pain to the town, and even in his death, how he may have left an un-resolvable pain on the minds’ of the people he sought to control.
Following these moments of dourness, the ending is almost cartoonishly weightless. Agee, angry about producers transforming his previous script, The African Queen, to make it more upbeat, may have intentionally distorted the screenplay’s conclusion to convey something unbelievably trivial. Like Fritz Lang’s often undervalued expressionist tragedy The Last Laugh, the film seemingly rethinks itself with a final wink, beginning again in more giddy fashion as if to say, like the Lang film explicitly makes clear, “here’s how it really would have ended” and “but here’s how the producers wanted us to end it”.
Or, perhaps, the film’s ending is in line with the work’s greater narrative thrust, that of a nightmare. Toward the end of the film, the protagonist may wake up, but this epilogue is yet another dream, as artificially idyllic as the opening of the film, rendering him forever entrapped in his own constructed reality. Twice, at the beginning of the film and at the end, Rachel (Lillian Gish), the new mother the children find downriver when escaping from Powell, speaks directly to the audience, lending credence to this elliptical narrative and the sense of open falsity and artifice in these final moments.
But another possibility exists, one that ever-cynical modern minds may want to reject. It may also be that she is the hope the children sought throughout the film and that the film is playing it straight in a moment of unbridled humanism to rival the end of City Lights. She is, of course, the film’s true shepherd, the person meant to guide the sheep rather than to cause harm to them. It seems that she’s the real deal, the actual dream figure meant to serve as a cautionary hope to audiences everywhere. She speaks directly to them, to us, in a scene unnervingly off-center to the basic tenants of continuity and hidden humility found in Hollywood cinema. A good filmmaker would never have included this scene, but then again Agee and Laughton weren’t good. They were great, and they were Hollywood outsiders. And they knew a powerful image, something that moved past the reality of Hollywood convention and toward a deeper reality, an emotive “ecstatic truth”, to quote Herzog, the kind of truth found only in the murkier, more primal swamps of fear and hope.
Rachel speaking to the audience also intimates the most important reality about the film: it’s a sermon, an American folk tale, a mixture of truth and fiction so interwoven and tense that it’s impossible to separate them, a film that tests our abilities to accept the impossible and to challenges our preconceptions of acceptable storytelling and tonal reaction by bending moods and modulating human reaction toward more garish realms like human clay. More than a narrative or an impression of childhood or a dream, it’s a series of emotional peaks and valleys that ebb and flow with sublime, liquid perfection. It’s a weird, wondrous, controversial, confusing, enlightening classic that’s only recently been acknowledged as such. It’s a film that begs to be understood but which maintains itself at arm’s length even as it immerses you into its contortions, a work that denounces the intellectual mind and dares, even threatens, to be confronted in unmodulated, emotionally primary tones. Confounding and dancing around the rational Enlightenment mind like a cinematic bedtime story, this is a test case in our ability to interrogate the limits of our assumptions that reason conquers all monsters. It threatens our often unquestioned belief that the unmoored intellect can quell the beasts of the unknown or the animalistic human imagination beckoning for more than logic can afford. Not only is this film beautiful and devious then, but it is downright insurrectionist in the way it disrupts our assumptions about worldly being, human reaction, and linear narrative logic. It’s a work of perpetual human majesty and one that renders itself onto the unconsciousness like no other, unearthing old means of telling stories rendered anew. And like any good sermon, the differences between the truth and the fiction and the lies don’t matter when the story is well told. This one is not only exhaled with panache but mystifying secrets a mile wide, equal parts fire-and-brimstone and gentle, awe-struck hope-in-a-basket. A sermon for the ages.
And a wonderfully reckless, devil-may-care one too, a deliberately anti-respectable decimation of the artistic norms of its era. For all it owes a debt to the mendacious ghouls of then-modern Southern literature like O’Connor and Faulkner, the real mystique and the danger of The Night of the Hunter is to circumvent the cynicism of modernism and nihilism. Instead, it barrels head-first into the glistening spark of overcoming the world the only way it knows how: by daring to explore it. Much like Mark Twain, the spirit of escape as a way to reimagine life anew is alive in The Night of the Hunter. To propose that sort of out, to dare to discover new possibility on the banks of adversity? That takes an unbridled, brazen artistic courage in an era more smitten with cynical harshness; it speaks not only to the imagination of the film’s protagonists, like the imagination of Huck Finn, but to the harebrained, delinquent, devilish, and even foolhardy genius of the artistic minds that created them.