The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

This piece was originally published on Simulacro Mag.

Our entrance into the world of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) is granted on a cosmic backdrop of stars twinkling in the distance over a velvet-black sky. Then, superimposed against the starry night, fades in the face of an aged Lillian Gish, who will later be introduced as Miss Cooper. Staring directly into the camera, she resumes talking about when ‘the good Lord went up into the mountain and talked to the people.’ But it’s not to us that she tells this story: suddenly, her face is replaced by those of five small children, boys and girls alike. Arranged in an arc, they listen attentively, their eyes sparkling as bright as the stars behind them.

Before we plunge into the world in which the tale will unfold, Gish leaves us with a haunting note of caution: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” It's an appropriate warning of biblical eeriness, one that transcends time and place.

This time, the ‘big bad wolf’ is clad in black and white, the colors of ‘men of God.’ As he aimlessly drives across the West-Virginian tree-lined dirt roads, he casually counts on his fingers the number of widows he has killed to “go forth and preach [the Lord's] word.” In these same fingers are also tattooed two words: love on his right hand, and hate on his left. He carries with him not only humanity’s eternal struggle between good and evil but the story of life itself.
Based on the homonymous novel by the West-Virginian writer Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter belongs to what is now known as Southern Gothic: a subgenre that has its origins in nineteenth-century American literature. Think the grotesque prose of William Faulkner, or the tragic poetics of Tennessee Williams. It’s a style that rips apart the tightly woven seams of Southern regional life, painting with a lyrical horror its scenes of rural decay, poverty, and violence.

In its essence, The Night of the Hunter is akin to a dark fairytale. As the credits roll on the screen at the beginning of the film, a grisly lullaby sings:

Dream, my little one
Though the hunter in the night
Fills your childish heart with fright

The song is an omen of the unholy perils we might expect. But before we become too frightened to embark on the journey, we are immediately comforted in the knowledge that there will be a happy ending:

Fear is only a dream
So dream, little one

Given that the fairytale is not only written for the child but also told by the child, the reassurance of a solution to his predicaments is imperative. Only then will he have the courage to go on and extricate himself from the trials that await him.

Laughton’s gothic fairytale revolves around a preacher, Reverend Harry Powell, and his attempt to get his hands on a stash of money stolen by Ben Harper, his cellmate in prison. After Harper’s execution, Powell, oozing piety, marries the widow, Willa, and starts sniffing around for the money. But between him and his just, providential reward stand little John and Pearl – Harper’s children and the only people who know where the money is hidden. When they are orphaned by the untimely death of their mother, the children must light out on the river to escape their stepfather.

We all carry a touch of evil within ourselves (some more than others), but children cannot comprehend this moral ambivalence and all its shades of grey. Their minds are dominated by polarization, and so are fairytales; good and evil must always be represented as diametrically opposite entities. In the film, we mostly see the world from the perspective of John, the protective older brother. In his eyes, good and evil are as far apart from each other as day is from night.

While the little boy is suspicious of the Reverend from the start, the adults are entirely oblivious of his true self. On the other hand, Miss Cooper is the epitome of good Christian morals. Of course, there might also be something a bit sinister even behind this woman’s sweet eyes: we know she has a son who has long abandoned her, for reasons unknown. And although she later becomes a sanctuary to the two Harper children, their first encounter at her porch is far from welcoming. She can be harsh, even moralizingly self-assured. But none of that matters to John. To him, she’s his guardian angel, the woman who saved him from the gruesome claws of the wolf when no one else would.
As Tom Gunning points out in his essay Shadow Play and Dripping Teat: The Night of the Hunter (1955), "movies are made up of moments, which both accumulate to an end and, in a sense, scatter across our memories." These moments, as embedded as they may be in the fabric of a story, are also beginnings and endings in themselves. The Night of the Hunter is full of such moments which carry whole worlds within them, but I'd like to dwell on one in particular.

One day, after finding that his mother is mysteriously gone, John realizes he and his sister must run away, otherwise who knows what horrors they may suffer in the hands of the wicked Powell. And so he tries to trick the man by telling him that the money is hidden in the cellar under a stone, but to no avail. The reverend forces the two children to go with him and finds out that John has lied, and that the money is actually hidden in Pearl’s rag doll. In a terrifying sequence, the raging Powell chases little John and Pearl, who miraculously manage to run up the stairs until they finally get out of the cellar. Finding the adult world can offer him no aid, John turns resolutely to the camera, saying: “There’s still the river.” With their vengeful stepfather still in pursuit, John and Pearl run to the river and slip across the water on a rowboat – a twinkling of an eye before the reverend falls on his knees into the muck howling the most horrific inhumane sounds.

From this pivotal moment, the film executes a complete stylistic shift, from dramatic hunt to dreamlike liberation. With no adults in sight, we now see the world through John and Pearl’s eyes: the innocent eyes of a child. A shot from high above shows the boat cradled in the maternal pace of the river. There’s Pearl, singing a haunting lullaby, and John sleeps. There are images of nature and the small animals on the banks who watch over them: a bullfrog, an owl, a turtle, a pair of bunnies, and a herd of sheep. Despite their uncanny quality, their presence is not threatening, but comforting. Nothing can harm them now.

The children’s journey downriver apparently occurs in the span of a few days. One night, John decides they are to spend the night on land. As the boat edges into shore, a farmhouse and barn appear against the fading night sky. Unlike the previous houses depicted in the film, this farmhouse seems to be lifted straight from a child’s drawing. It seems nothing more than a backlit silhouette: a rooftop with two chimneys, an attached porch, and a bright rectangle of light indicating a window. From this light-filled opening we see the shade of a bird chirping in a cage and a semicircular shadow at the bottom. All the while, we hear another lullaby – but this time, it’s a motherly voice who sings it. Perhaps it’s her the shadow at the window: an unseen mother rocking her baby to sleep. Similar to the animals on the riverbanks, her mere presence acts as a protective totem.

As John and Pearl enter the barn, the lullaby continues: “Rest, dearest one, rest, here on my breast” And so they do. There is a surreal artificiality to the framing of this scene. Through a large window, the soft moonlight engulfs the dark interior of the barn. Framed by this rectangle of light, we have a safe view across the surrounding farmlands. The children sleep soundly, but John is soon stirred by a disturbance. The stillness of the night is suddenly replaced by a distant voice: “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.” Silhouetted against the faint rays of dawn, Reverend Powell rides on horseback, inexorably closer. The man, the horizon along which he drives his steed, and the ground that seems to lead to John and Pearl, all merge into one, rendered in absolute darkness. It’s an image of cold horror, a nightmare of a world collapsed.

The world crafted by Laughton is cast in shadows. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the most stunning centerpieces of the film are images of the people thrown at the mercy of the dark. Miss Cooper keeping vigil, bathed by the moonlight, shotgun in her lap. Through the window, we see Powell – the devil, the wolf – lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Or consider Reverend Powell’s arrival into the lives of John and Pearl, which is marked not by their first encounter, but by his ominous shadow hanging over that of John’s on the boy’s bedroom wall. With his replacing the children’s father, the daylight that occupies the early passages of the film is replaced by a consuming void of darkness. This is pictured to haunting effect when Willa returns home one night in time to overhear the reverend’s torment of her children. As she stands helpless on the yard, the house is cast in a dense mist, as though adrift in an endless black sea.

But out of all of Laughton’s extraordinary visual gifts, it’s the spectacle of this very woman at the bottom of the river that still haunts me: the spectral image of Willa, her now lifeless body buried “down there in the deep place, with her hair wavin’ soft and lazy, like meadow grass under floodwater.” Contrary to other equally striking sequences in the film, this scene is bathed in light – and it’s precisely this that makes this moment a tableau of horror that seems to belong to another realm entirely.

If these images have force to us, it’s because Laughton’s manipulation of light and dark goes beyond representing a dichotomy between good and evil. It’s so impactful it reaches deep into our reservoirs of childhood terror, materializing them into images of an arresting lyrical horror.
Twelve years prior to the release of The Night of the Hunter, another Englishman arrived in the United States to expose the underbelly of American life: Alfred Hitchcock. Borrowing the words of Guillermo del Toro from his illuminating interview for Criterion:

They both dabbed into the shadow side of America. Hitchcock, with the white picket-fence little town in Shadow of a Doubt, was able to see the lurking shadow around the corner in Uncle Charlie. And Laughton was able to look at the Southern Gothic and find, in this preacher that sang hymns, the menace, and the horror, and the spiritual tones.

When asked to name the overarching theme for Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock replied: “Love and good order is no defense against evil.” Although the same could be said about Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, I would argue that both films ask us to doubt the simplistic line between good and evil.

Let us return to The Night of the Hunter for a moment. The same night she confronts her husband about his true intentions, the pious Willa, while lying in bed after mumbling her prayers, and still denying the meaning of what she heard, finally meets her demise. Powell has his left hand (the hand of hate) out-stretched towards the sky, as the soft moonlight floods their cathedral-like bedroom. But it’s with his right hand, the hand of love, that he gives the final judgement, slitting her delicate throat open “like a second mouth.” Is this what there is of love in Harry Powell? Which has triumphed, love or hate?

In the end, both Uncle Charlie and Harry Powell receive their due judgement – Uncle Charlie from the hands of his own niece (literally), and Powell from an angry lynch mob. But neither film will let us tie it up under a neat bow. In Shadow of a Doubt’s last scene, we see young Charlie and her fiancée at her Uncle’s funeral. He is honored by the townspeople, and the couple resolves to keep Uncle Charlie’s crimes a secret. In Hitchcock’s own words, Charlie “will remain in love with her uncle for the rest of her life.”

Similarly, after Powell is caught, John unexpectedly wails and rushes over to him with the money he can no longer stand the weight of. Past and present, father and villain: all muddled into one. Is John a victim of the reverend’s murderous manipulation? Or is he able to feel love even for Powell?
Laughton’s film ends with a wide shot of Miss Cooper’s farm house lying below a blanket of pure white. On the forefront is a picket fence and a mailbox, where Miss Cooper hurries through the snow to check for mail. And just behind it, black smoke lazily drifts into the air from a chimney. Here, for the first time, black and white don’t obliterate our sense of a real world, but rather assure us of its permanence.

And so, what I take from The Night of the Hunter is this: both the hand of love and the hand of hate; the engulfing darkness of the shadows and the gleaming light of the first rays of dawn; the snow and the smoke. Above all, I take the assurance that fear is only a dream.

Bruna liked these reviews