It's A Hard World For Little Things: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

Every time I hear Robert Mitchum move into the swelling and baritone singing of "Lean on Jesus" I literally get goosebumps.  I watched this film early in the morning, perhaps the exact opposite of the ideal time to view this film and found myself still feeling the anxiety, dread and frankly adoration I initially felt upon discovering this film years ago.  What do I have to thank for this revisiting of a fear-inducing classic, none other than the brilliant Movies, Silently and her recent Gish Sisters Blogathon.  Admittedly, I jumped on the chance to revisit this film, because it is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite films of all-time, if only for it being the rare example of a perfect piece of cinema, one that was the single directorial work of Charles Laughton no less.  Furthermore, by choosing to specifically focus on this film, I was able to truly look at the role Gish offers, which shines both narratively and emotionally compared to the seething corrupt figure made a cult icon by Mitchum.  I went into this viewing anxiously awaiting all my favorite scenes, between the Love/Hate hand story and the image of Shelley Winters body at the bottom of the lake, I had my notion of what this recent viewing of the experience might prove to become, what I did not expect was to be rewarded with a far more clever film than I had recalled previously, both in terms of some devilishly subversive writing, as well as in the many cinematic choices inside and outside the diagetic space of the film that allow for it to seem like something that exists entirely in a world all its own, one where crane shots can sweep into sequences, maniacal preachers can instantaneously transport themselves from town to town and where small girls can begin singing with the voice of a grown woman.  In a lesser film all of this would seem like poor editing choice or over-the-top elements intended to draw in mild interest in the viewers, however, in the eyes of Laughton and through the very nature of the narrative, these seemingly arbitrary acting choices are evocative, engaging and, at times, cinematically engaging, much in the same vein as a work by Stanley Kubrick.  The Night of the Hunter is many things, a noir, a crime thriller, a family drama, a kids film and a work of melodrama, however, it is certainly and undeniably a masterpiece that should be viewed by all many a time.

The Night of the Hunter, begins, after an eerie floating head narration involving a then unidentified woman talking within children, with a murder.  This murder, is suggested to be exacted at the hands of one Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) a preacher whose communique with God leads him to confess to having a unhealthy attachment to women, wherein he constantly asks forgiveness and provides thanks to the religious figure for providing him with a constant flow of money, of which he draws from recently widowed women.  Meanwhile, two children John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) witness their father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) return from a recent robbery, only to quickly stuff his money in Pearl's doll, before being hauled off to jail, where he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution.  It is in jail that he meets Harry Powell, who becomes curious when Ben begins vaguely quoting scripture and mentioning the whereabouts of his money.  After Harper's execution, Powell feigns being a dear friend to Harper returning to his hometown and tracking down his widowed wife Willa (Shelley Winters) who is hesitant to welcome the slick-talking preacher, particularly when she suspects that he is only after the money which her late husband had hid.  John is even more suspicious leaning on the promise he made to his father not to betray the location of the money, constantly assuring that the less intelligent Pearl does the same.  Harry uses a variety of forms of trickery and smooth words to try and attain the whereabouts of the money, even resorting to murdering Willa when she comes to suspect that her new husband really only cares to find the money, made all the more a betrayal after she has given herself up to his religious ways, blindly spouting scripture.  The murder of their mother leads the children on an exodus down river in a rowboat, where they eventually land in the backyard of self-run foster mom and general good samaritan Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).  Realizing that John and Pearl are clearly running from a dire situation, when Harry comes knocking at her door she quickly banishes him with the threat of a shotgun, an action she goes through with when the slimy Harry returns later that night.  After a successful arrest of Harry, John frustratingly tosses the money at the handcuffed preacher explaining that he can no longer stand the burden of carrying such a secret.  AFter doing so the two join their fellow orphans and Rachel for Christmas celebration, one that affords John the very watch he has had his eye on since the films opening moments.

It might seem like the best move for analyzing a film such as The Night of the Hunter would be to go at it from the "what is the nature of religion" route and while this is certainly a theme that emerges specifically in the contrasting characters of Harry and Rachel, one could extend this argument on to consider the larger idea of authority and whose given the power to say what is right or wrong in the face of figures who are culturally afforded an unquestioned amount of respect.  The Night of the Hunter appears to suggest that only two things stand to be undeniably authoritative, the rule of law and time.  Yet even law within the narrative becomes rather murky when a man is stealing money to make living in a moment of depression a bit easier, or when the same law enforcement spends its time hunting psychotic serial killing preachers while completely brushing by lines of starving children.  Justice, in the context of The Night of the Hunter then becomes tied almost solely to the notion that if one is able to understand time, not control it, but merely work in its favor they can assure that justice will work in their favor, particularly if they are working in a fair and reasonable way.  Indeed, the reason that Harry is eventually is not because he gave himself up or was actively pursued by the police, but because he attempted to cheat time and kill children to attain money from them, his similar actions in previous situations are also his own act to avoid the effort and patience of attaining money, something he thinks he can merely get by working within his bizarre relationship with God.  The other notion of authority comes then in signifiers of power, for Harry it is always tied to his phallic knife something that takes on blatant sexual allusions throughout the film and remains his point of privilege until challenged by Rachel's much larger and more powerful shotgun, the subversive gender politics even more interesting. Indeed, this leaves John as a figure to be swayed by the time and signifiers of authority in the films closing, as Rachel accepts that her stories from The Bible only serve a cursory function to instill authority.  It is indeed not until she hands John the watch that he becomes an arbitrator of authority because he can now tell the time, that thing that rules over all within the film, as well as those outside of the diagetic space, verified when Lilian Gish breaks the fourth wall in the closing moments of the film.

Key Scene: The scene involving the joint singing of Lean on Jesus by Gish and Mitchum is absolutely one of the premier moments in all of cinema.  Furthermore, one could also make the case that the images of Willa's body laying at the bottom of the lake are also some of the most haunting ever committed to film.


  1. I get goosebumps from this movie too! Loved your section on the rule of law and time too. It's a cool perspective on Harry's psychotic mind-frame. He clearly thought himself to be right in the eyes of God... which is quite frightening. It means there's no limit to what he can do, there's no real conscience there.

    I think this is one of the most underrated movies of all time :)

  2. Yes! I also think that Charles Laughton makes that apparent in his composition of the film, Harry Powell always seems to be chasing the children at a rate that is impossibly fast and highly perceptive, while never acting hastily or sporadically. Indeed, I would even argue that the chase scenes from later films like John Carpenter's Halloween have a direct tie to how Laughton depicted Powell's chase scenes her in The Night of the Hunter. As for your suggestion of it being underrated, I would go a step further and argue that it might well be the most underrated film of all time. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon! I really enjoyed reading your examination of this film and the role of time and authority in the plot. I, for one, loved the gender subversion of seemingly dainty Lillian Gish and her shotgun.

    1. Fritzi, I could not agree more! Gish is clearly reveling in the strong female role she is given, arguably taking power over Mitchum's maniacal preacher in the moment where the two share in the "Lean on Jesus" chorus. I cannot help but think the casting choice, on the part of Laughton an others gives another layer of subversion when it is clearly a contrast to her muted, far more feminine performances in something like D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Thanks for checking in and also running this brilliant blogathon!

  4. This film is so good, I can't believe I took so long to watch it! You're right, it looks like the earlier works of Kubrick. I can't decide if I prefer the acting by Lillian Gish, absolutely wonderful, or Mitchum, who also gave me goosebumps.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)