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.
Eventually the children become the prey and wards of another religious fanatic, Rachel Cooper (played by the amazing Lillian Gish), an old widow abandoned by her own son and who has made it her duty and burden to care for all the little lost children and bastards who populate her small town in a makeshift orphanage. She reads to them from the bible (which John wisely avoids at first, but then finally warms to when he realizes Mrs. Cooper turns to the bible for lessons on surviving in an evil world whereas Harry Powell had turned to it for lessons on how to be evil in an evil world – it was her excuse to be good while it was his excuse to be evil). And the old woman both looks down on and protects them youngins, telling herself over and over that they are resilient and abide, while still thinking them stupid and pulling a shot gun on those who would want to hurt them. The scene of her and Harry Powell singing hymns in the night while she rocks in her chair with the shotgun and he leans on the fence outside the house is one that chills me to the bone, not because I feared he would make a move and she would have to use that gun, but because it was dueling religious fanatics whose poisoned worldview had lead them to opposite ends of the spectrum – yet both were ready to strike and kill in the name of their beliefs.
The adults in the film frequently take solace in their burdens, proud of the crosses they have to bare, finding some kind of self-worth in their suffering…never really wanting to rise up out of their depressed predicaments, only wanting to muddle through and survive. It seems now, John, too, safe from the step-father who wanted to murder him and nuzzled in the comforting arms of Mrs. Cooper, will follow down this righteous path as well. He showed sparks of true cunning and rising up – he was wise to want to run away from it all – and the fact that he might never get that chance again makes the faux warm and fuzzy ending to The Night of the Hunter one of the saddest in cinema’s history.
In this tortured world, we all remain children…forever…and we abide…living in eternal fear of the hands of a man that would strangle us, and the hands of a god that would damn us if we ever try to grow up.