January 26, 2012 by abbyo
Something I’ve noticed the more I’ve been writing about movies is how often themes of religion, morality and spirituality show up in film. I’m sure that part of this is because I’m a Christian, and on some level I’m actively looking for it in the movies I watch. But honestly, I don’t think I’m seeing things that aren’t already there. Something that’s particularly interesting is how often these themes are applied to movies about crime. Think, for example, about a movie like “Layer Cake,” ostensibly about the corrupting, unpredictable nature of supposedly organized crime, or “The Hit,” a Zen-like exploration of mortality, the afterlife, and whether or not you can stick to your beliefs when a gun’s pointed in your face. Crime movies are often the movies with the most to say about the world at large. It turns out that “The Night of the Hunter” is another of these. It’s a movie with plenty of interesting things to say about the different forms belief can take, for better or worse, and the nature of the relationship between adults and children.
In the film, a phony itinerant preacher named Harry Powell (the amazing Robert Mitchum, more on him later) gets thrown in jail for stealing a car. His cellmate is Ben Harper (Peter Graves! From “Airplane!”), who’s on death row for killing three people while he robbed a bank. When he’s not busy carjacking or conning the faithful, Harry’s other past time is killing widows and taking their money, so naturally he starts getting interested when he finds out Ben’s hidden thousands of dollars somewhere in his house. After Ben is executed and Harry’s released, Harry goes about romancing Ben’s wife, Willa (Shelley Winters), and trying to charm—and then torture—the whereabouts of the loot out of the two kids, John and Pearl, who refuse to tell.
Now, from that synopsis you might assume that “The Night of the Hunter” is all about Harry. But it’s not. John and Pearl are the real focus of the story, especially in the film’s last half. Despite some subject matter that is definitely not suitable for kids, “Hunter” is told mainly from the children’s perspective. John and Pearl eventually run away from home, and travel on the river Huck Finn-style until they’re taken in by Rachel (Lillian Gish) a kind-but-feisty old lady who plays foster mother to a gaggle of kids. The rest of “Hunter” is devoted to the relationship between Rachel and John, as she teaches him to trust adults again, and he begins to recover from the massive betrayals he’s experienced.
“Hunter” is a movie in two distinct acts: the portion before John and Pearl run away, and the portion after they escape and take to the river. But the two parts are tied together securely by Mitchum’s terrifying presence. He is brilliant here, capable both of moments of sheer terror and cartoonish villainy, often within the same scene. It helps that Charles Laughton, who directed, also throws in images reminiscent of those old Universal monster movies—you know the ones, Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the like. In several scenes, Harry casts a long shadow over his victims from an open doorway. In another, he chases the kids up a set of stairs with his arms reaching out in front like Frankenstein. There’s even a mob armed with pitchforks and torches. It’s all to drive the point home that while Harry may not have supernatural powers, he’s absolutely a monster.
Laughton also uses the movie to comment on religion, but not necessarily Christianity so much as those who practice it. The first example we get is Harry, who may be using his preacher guise to murder and steal, but whose belief definitely isn’t fake. He finds justification for all his dirty deeds through a warped sense of faith. He spends time in whorehouses and peep shows so he can kill off loose women in the name of the Lord, slitting their throats with a switchblade. After marrying Willa, he refuses to have sex with her for pleasure, claiming that the only time to have sex is when you’re planning to beget children, and you’re not supposed to like it. He leads prayer meetings, and sings hymns. In his psychotic brain, he’s God’s messenger.
That image is contrasted with Rachel, the foster mother, who’s also a Christian, and reads to the kids from the Bible. Rachel is a nurturer, and she’s determined to practice her own brand of social justice by protecting children who’ve been done wrong by the world. She’ll go to impressive lengths to do that, too. Here she is staring down Harry with a shotgun:
Rachel is my kind of Christian. She’s the kind of person who stands by her beliefs with courage and modesty. She does good not because she wants the attention, but because it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, because of that quiet assurance, Rachel’s not the kind of person who’s widely recognized or influential. The kind of Christians the world is used to seeing are people like Harry, loud showmen with a screw loose who wildly misinterpret the word of God to justify their actions. And to make sure you won’t miss the point, Laughton starts the whole movie with Rachel warning the kids to beware of false prophets, mere moments before we’re introduced to Harry.
As with “Peeping Tom,” it seems critics and audiences weren’t ready for “The Night of the Hunter” at the time it was released. It was a critical and box-office failure, and Laughton never got the chance to direct again. It’s actually not hard to see why. “Hunter” is an ambitious piece of filmmaking that’s got a lot on its mind, and some troubling images that are upsetting even today. But fortunately, it’s gained lots of acclaim the longer it’s been around. It’s also been hugely influential. You can see elements of this movie in everything from “The Stepfather” to Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books. But what makes the movie remarkable isn’t its recognizable themes. It’s the film’s impressive and thoughtful exploration of what a false prophet looks like, and just how scary they can be.
Special announcement!: I’ll be on Kansas Public Radio tomorrow, reviewing the new movie “Man on a Ledge.” If you’d like to hear the review, go to kansaspublicradio.org and listen to the online stream between 6 and 9 a.m. CST tomorrow morning, or if you live in Lawrence, tune in to 91.5 FM. The audio from the review will also be posted online after broadcast, so if you’re not an early bird, you can also find it there later.