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Archive for October 7th, 2015

Night of the Hunter 1

by D. H. Schleicher

The singer in the opening of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter invites viewers to dream along with its young protagonist, John Harper (Billy Chapin), but what transpires in the film is a pure nightmare where religious fanaticism begs us to treat everyone like children and envision a world where everyone is fair game for evil.  He’s just a poor kid whose dad was just hung for murder (but not before entrusting his son to hide his stash of money), whose mother (Shelly Winters) is helpless, and whose little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), needs minding.  Into his life steps the world’s most vile step-father, Harry Powell (the magnificently monstrous Robert Mitchum) – a widow-killer and money-hungry would-be preacher who wows the simpletons of the small towns he invades with his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.  But John is on to him from the get-go (he knows this jack-ass just wants the cash), and John rails against the man and his worldview.

Women are grotesquely marginalized by the faith-based worldview of the characters in The Night of the Hunter as well as by the time period in which the story takes place (1930’s West Virginia).  Ordered to suppress their desires and obey their men, they are treated like children and called stupid and foolish, slapped around, and murdered…the slitting of Willa Harper’s throat depicted in horrifically stylized expressionistic shots, some of the most menacing mise-en-scene in the history of cinema – culminating with the famous “hair in the tangled deep water reeds” scene of her desecrated body “at rest” in the bottom of the river.  Teenage girls are even stupider, and worth only their wombs that shoot out bastard children whom the righteous (be it in the form of evil Harry Powell or goody-goody Rachel Cooper) then must watch over.  Meanwhile, the littlest of girls, Pearl, is just (in the words of Powell) “a miserable little wretch,” depicted without the brains to discern bad men from good (if this is innocence, then innocence must be lost!)

After his mother’s murder, John absconds with Pearl down the river in a skiff in a Grimm’s fairy-tail journey – not a single authentic shot to be found – all hyper-realized imaginings of children on the run for their lives.  It’s creepy and atmospheric, and the water of the river seems to be flowing both ways in just another example of the film’s overt symbolism and weirdness that creates the greatest of unease.  But John is vigilant – and always keeps a step ahead of Harry Powell. (more…)

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