After a viewing on this film, “Leaning on Everlasting Arms”, the beautiful old hymn, will never be the same. Directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is to this day unlike anything else ever made – it has rhythms and movements and styles all its own. In Hunter, a twisted Great Depression-era preacher (Robert Mitchum) seeks out, seduces, and marries a meek, outcast of a woman (Shelly Winters) whose bank-robbing husband (a young Peter Graves) had stolen and hidden $10,000 prior to his hanging. The location of this money is known only by her two children. Following a long, satirically cynical prologue that introduces the oddities of its rural setting is a dreamy, expressionist journey down a dreary, hypnotic lazy river that leads miraculously to a farm home watched carefully by the faithful and strong old Ms. Cooper (an impeccable Lillian Gish). Hunter is bone-chillingly beautiful, and demands other such oxymoronical descriptions. One of the most striking things about the film is the indelible images it leaves you with: the hair of a dead woman in a car floating amidst reeds at the bottom of a lake, a horrific wedding night, children in the cellar, hand tattoos, and a battle hymn are just a few of its many treasures. The performances are fantastic, and the film has an underlying sense of dread and darkness that was unexpected in 1955. Although it was rejected both critically and commercially when it was first released, it is now a timeless classic that has left an imprint on many films today and is regarded by many as one of the greatest. It is one of cinema’s true tragedies that Laughton never made another film.
It would be easy to see this film simply as a morbid warning against false teachers. After all, the film opens with a short scriptural prologue of Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Yet, to view the film in this way would be narrow sighted and miss its larger thematic base – that society, specifically adult society, is marked by a dangerous tendency to conform. Laughton’s film is not so much about how terrible preacher Powell is, though he is truly abhorrent, but rather about the dangers of groupthink. When you consider the McCarthyist historical context of the film, it is this theme that elevates the film to something not only aesthetically, but also culturally significant.
Laughton handles this matter by creating a strict dichotomy amongst adults – those who fulfill culturally accepted standards and those who don’t. Because of his mother’s sordid history, the child protagonist John’s deeper interactions with adults are confined to the world of outcasts, and it is through this world that we are given Laughton’s most insightful warnings. John’s mother finds a means to regain cultural status in marrying Powell, who has asserted himself as somewhat of a charismatic savior in their town. The lure of societal acceptance overpowers all else, blinding her to the destruction done on her own psyche and the endangered lives of her children. John’s other adult connection is also instructive – Birdie, the town drunk, recognizes that his status has made him a menace in the eyes of many and does not divulge pertinent evidence for fear of being accused himself. In both the case of John’s mother and Birdie, the masses dictate the actions of the few, to the detriment of all.
Laughton’s hope is in children and those who mirror their innocence and humbly care for them, for children are immune to such influences. As the final words of the film say of children: “They abide, and they endure.” What else could they do? John and his sister Pearl do not yet know they should care about such things, but are forced to feel their effects nevertheless. The film tells much of its story from this confused childlike perspective, exaggerating the words and actions of adults to the point of absurdity (Mitchum’s physicality as Powell being the prime example), visually elongating sets with expressionist flair, and highlighting the naturalistic details of life so many adults neglect to notice. This does, indeed, create a unique space for a viewer - a space to view the horrors of life through the lens of ignorance. It simultaneously dampens the impact of the film’s gruesome details and makes them more haunting, for just as the children of the film see them, they are also oddly foreign to us.
This film also comes in at #7 on David’s Top Ten and is the answer to this mystery film. Answers to the mystery clues are now included on that post.