NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: A Nightmarish Mother Goose Tale

by Norm Nielsen

Scarecrow Video’s March Crosscut theme is “March Badness,” and Robert Mitchum’s role as the child stalking, sexually repressed, gospel-spewing serial-killer Harry Powell in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter is one of the great cinematic portrayals of badness. Self-proclaimed preacher Harry Powell marries and murders widows for their money believing he is doing God’s work by eliminating women who arouse men’s carnal instincts. On the knuckles of his left hand is tattooed H-A-T-E on his right hand is L-O-V-E; given an opportunity Powell uses his clenched hands to demonstrate the Biblical struggle between love and hate. Two standout lines in the film characterize Powell: “Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15), and “It’s a hard world for little things.”

The Night of the Hunter is much more than a simple tale of a hate versus love. It is a Gothic fairy tale replete with sexual alienation, religious hypocrisy, greed, and the Jungian logic of nightmares. In Depression era West Virginia, Harry Powell shares a cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) and tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the $10,000 Harper stole in a bank robbery. Only Ben’s nine-year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), and four-year-old daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is hidden, and they have sworn to their father to keep this secret. After Ben is executed Harry Powell goes to the fictional town of Cresap’s Landing to court Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Powell overwhelms her with his masculine good looks, scripture quotes, and sermons. Willa agrees to marry Powell. On their wedding night he tells her they will never have sex because it is sinful and only for procreation. Willa becomes depressed, confused, and excessively pious. Then Willa realizes Powell’s real essence when she catches him trying to force Pearl into revealing the whereabouts of the money. Powell seeks God’s guidance and Willa’s fate is sealed with a switchblade. Powell becomes John and Pearl’s guardian and relentlessly cajoles and threatens them to reveal the whereabouts of the $10,000. This leads to an extended chase down the Ohio River with John and Pearl in a rowboat and Powell on horseback repeatedly singing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” John and Pearl wind up at the home of widow Rachel Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish) whose faith-based mission in life is to shelter orphaned children. Powell catches up to the children, but Miz Cooper sees through his man-of-God facade and chases him off at gunpoint. Powell returns later, but ultimately love conquers hate.

The love-versus-hate plot of The Night of the Hunter would have been standard fare in the silent film era. Indeed, silent film good/bad morality was director Charles Laughton’s inspiration for the film and a prime reason for casting Lillian Gish in a pivotal role. Charles Laughton was one of the greatest screen and theater actors of his generation (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and many more). Night of the Hunter was Laughton’s only directorial effort. Laughton was keen for the film to have high artistic merit. He directed the carefully selected actors with great attention to detail. He chose to shoot the film in a German expressionist cinematic style, which cinematographer Stanley Cortez and art director Hilyard Brown expertly executed. For the mid-1950s, the film had a truly unusual look and feel with stylized dialog and acting, dramatic angling of shots, iris shots, high contrast black-and-white images, bold use of shadow, and deliberately unconcealed artifice. For reference think of the German expressionist films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931).


However, Laughton’s vision was out of sync with the Technicolor/Doris Day times. The film was a box office disaster. Audiences did not know what to make of a film Laughton himself said was “A nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” Laughton became depressed over the film’s poor reception and never directed another film. Today the film is regarded as a uniquely original classic. In 1992 it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and is now included on many “Best Films” lists.

Most definitely screen the Criterion Collection version of The Night of the Hunter. It is a visually stunning new digital transfer made from 35 mm film elements restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with MGM Studios, with funding provided by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and film preservationist/producer Robert Sturm. Disk two of the Criterion Collection includes the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a wealth of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage.


Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.

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