Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


There is an interesting spiritual tension running throughout Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).  It is one, not so much of good versus evil, but of innocence verses cynicism.  As this unique film set during the depression begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a large sum of money, stolen in a bank robbery, with his two small children.  The police closing in, he instructs son John (Billy Chapin) to hide the money in a safe place.  Also closing in is Ben’s former cellmate, The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  Powell will do anything to get his hands on the bank loot.  Ben is later hanged for a killing committed during the robbery, giving Powell an opportunity to worm (and I do mean “worm”) his way into Ben’s shattered family.  It is here that we see the most profound example of innocence and cynicism as Ben’s daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is immediately enamored of this ravenous wolf while John is filled with suspicion for the monster who will soon become his stepfather.  Also taken with Powell is the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).  She, along with most of the town adores this Bible quoting character.  In fact most everyone in this small town quotes scripture fanatically.  Along with this religiosity comes an almost pathological hatred of sexuality, especially of the feminine sort.  As an old lady proudly remarks of her sex life with her husband of forty years: “I just lie there and think about my canning!”  Powell also warns Willa on their wedding night that there will be no sexual relations, as a woman’s body is made solely for making babies and he has no interest in having  children.  Willa later states “My whole body is quivering with goodness!”  This, of course, presents another tension: One between human nature and the harsh standards set by fanaticism.  The sexual tension in the film is beautifully illustrated as Powell, seething with self-righteous hatred for female sexuality and the temptations it imposes on men, watches a stripper perform in a nightclub.  To our surprise (the film was made in 1955, after all) Powell’s switch blade suddenly pokes through his pants pocket.  A phallic image so blatant, it must have caused the censor spasms of anxiety way back when. 

As Willa realizes that Powell is only after money, the crazed preacher kills her in a scene so brilliantly stylized, it guarantees Laughton’s status as a master filmmaker in this, his only film as director.  (Also unforgettable are the shots of Willa’s corpse and car submerged in a lake, the water causing her hair to wave as though being blown by the wind on a summer drive.)  The couple’s bedroom is designed and lit to resemble a church and Robert Mitchum gives a chilling performance as he stares out a large window, his right hand raised to God.  His wife is in bed, her hands folded over her chest as though in a casket.  She knows her husband only wants the money but amazingly still believes he was sent by God to deliver her from her sins.  But she does know…Again the switch blade comes out – this time to finally sacrifice a woman who is abhorrent in Powell’s mind.  All this twisted religion is presented by Laughton and screenwriter James Agee as a crutch as is the alcohol abuse presented in the film.  This is apparent in the depiction of “Uncle Birdie” (James Gleason) an elderly friend of John’s.  He is the only character in the film with no interest in religion, but when he spies Willa’s body in the lake, he indulges in booze and mumbles in a drunken haze “I swear on..the book…”  Even this proud man reaches for a Bible and strong drink in times of trouble. 

The aforementioned tensions – between sexuality and religion, innocence and cynicism – are magnificently illustrated in Powell’s tatoos.  “Love” on the one hand and “hate” on the other, these elements of existence are forever intertwined as Powell demonstrates by linking his fingers together.  But there is another tension or conflict in the film and in life:  That of false or twisted religion and the real thing.  The false is represented by Powell and the hypocritical towns people who gather as a lynch mob when the preacher is finally arrested for Willa’s murder.  Earlier in the film, at one of Powell’s religious  revivals, torches throw shadows on the walls that remind us of burning KKK crosses.  The real deal is represented by an elderly woman, Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes in abandoned children and rescues John and Pearl when they flee from their homicidal stepfather.  Children, as presented here, are the ultimate innocents, and they must be brought up right.  The first shot of Miss Cooper’s kids has them suddenly standing up in a garden, coming into frame as though they sprang out of the ground. 

The conflict between the two approaches to faith is demonstrated as Miss Cooper, waiting for the inevitable confrontation with Powell, joins in a hymn Powell is singing outside her window.  The two will forever be interlocked like love and hate. 

There is an interesting depiction of animals in the film.  Like the humans around them, they can be either victim or victimizer.  Cooper watches an owl kill a rabbit and remarks “It’s a hard world for little things.”  After she shoots a menacing Powell, the maniac minister screams out like a stuck hog, a bestial moment for a wild animal.  It is a comical moment as well, which confused me the first time I saw the film…Then I remembered the animal references.  Miss Cooper is one of God’s “little things” indeed – fragile and gentle for the most part – but she has the true faith in the true God by her side…and a loaded gun. 

The villainous preacher would become a rank stereotype in future films and TV shows, but Charles Laughton was somewhat of a trailblazer.  If this trail was subsequently beaten down and worn out Laughton was not to blame, as he seemed, at least with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, to greatly admire genuine religious convictions and ideals.

CREDITS: Directed by Charles Laughton.  Written by James Agee.  Based on the novel by Davis Grubb.  Photography by Stanley Cortez.  Music by Walter Schumann.  With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, James Gleason, Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden.


July 12, 2012 - Posted by | American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Great review, I need to watch this film as I haven’t seen it in a long while.

    Comment by vinnieh | July 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks! I went to your blog – Great reviews! My favorite final shots are from the original PLANET OF THE APES, 2001, THE BIRDS and REAR WINDOW.

      Comment by mdino | July 13, 2012 | Reply

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