There’s a scene close to the end of The Night of the Hunter that drops the temperature of my blood just as surely as dropping me in a cold river would. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sits bathed in moonlight, shotgun in her lap, while outside a man lies in wait, singing a wistful hymn. He’s doing it to let the woman know he’s there, and that he’s going to get her and what she’s guarding as soon as he can.
The Night of the Hunter is a fairy tale of the Great Depression, of violence, misogyny, drinking, sex, twisted faith, and a grand, drifting river under a heavy sky. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), one of cinema’s most charming monsters, stands out at the gate with the lights behind him, low hat covering his face, crooning so sweetly and so terribly, his knuckles tattooed with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E. He’s looking for a pile of banknotes so he can continue God’s work. Standing between him and that money are two little children, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and John (Billy Chapin), who, after Powell murdered their mother, find their way into Rachel Cooper’s care.
Leaning on Jesus
Leaning on Jesus
Leaning on the everlasting arm.
Rachel sings back to the lurking Powell, in dare or kinship. Either way, the duet shows there are doubles at work, that good and evil are not so far apart. In fact, they are close enough to trouble one another. On the one hand, Reverend Powell rages with self-righteousness against women, murdering them out of faith. “There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair,” he prays to a misogynist God while he grimaces in a burlesque joint. What is there of L-O-V-E about Harry Powell? Harry uses both hands, so neither love nor hate can win.
You’d think that since this is 1955, the movie has to have a powerful counter-argument: God-as-love, some big arrow pointing out how hollow Powell’s take on faith is. But that’s whereThe Night of the Hunter secures its status in the noir genre: It subtly undermines mid twentieth-century America’s “secure” territories – the kindness and sexual neutrality of women and the welcoming, wholesome nature of the real American town.
When Powell rides into the small river township where Pearl and John live, we get a sense of this sort of community: there are neat arrays of modest homes, and there are gatherings under the trees at an outdoor church potluck. Yet underneath this idyllic surface the town is a small place, full of gossip, hypocrisy, and petty-mindedness.
Throughout The Night of the Hunter, we see the way this community fosters silence, allowing abuse to flourish. It’s there in Ben Harper, the man who entrusts his stolen money to his son, casually dismissing his wife’s capacity to judge what should be done with it. It’s there in the boatkeeper, talking back to the photograph of his dead wife. It’s especially there in Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), the improbably named co-owner of Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlour. She dishes out sweets with one hand and entrenched opinions with the other, especially to Willa (a haunted, wide-eyed Shelley Winters), John and Pearl’s mother, condemning her for raising her children without a father, for not taking a husband.
At Reverend Powell’s appearance, Icey is immediately taken, and forces the hesitant Willa into his presence.
Icey and Reverend Powell’s understanding of Christianity are not so very different; both of them ultimately serve a coded misogyny. It is Icey’s moralising which twists Willa’s mind to Powell’s advantage.
What Icey says is law. Just as Rachel Cooper acts as the moral authority of the narrative, Icey is the moral centre of the town. We are shown quite clearly that the opinions of less assertive women than Icey Spoon are steamrolled. If sex is something to be bored by, then that is so. “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there and think about my canning,” she says loudly. Willa caves in to pressure and marries Powell. Immediately the reverend exposes the deep, monstrous coldness in his heart. On their wedding night Powell makes quite clear there will be no sexual contact between him and his new wife – he cannot abide the sight, never mind the sinful touch of one of these ‘things’ so hated by God. Worst perhaps is Willa’s response, to read godly righteousness in this. She prays to God to make her good, clean. She prays hard, in the long shadows of the room, to Powell’s and Icey’s misogynist God to strip her of desires and leave her floating in the numb comfort of their Christianity. It’s an inverse of Lady Macbeth’s prayer to the dark forces to strip her of her womanliness so she can be callous and strong.
We know what Powell is and so, dimly, does young John. John immediately takes a dislike to Reverend Powell, but his concerns are – ironically – read as rude. John shouldn’t have to be good, or clean. He’s a child, vulnerable, innocent and representative of the instinct to live, to carry on regardless of the odds life holds gleaming against our throats. This is the beating heart of the fairy tale – one force against another, a small, still person up against a figure of authority who has a switchblade in his pocket and rage in his heart. Mitchum’s acting is heavily theatrical, all magnificent enunciations and gesture, but it builds tension, and we wonder how soon and how murderously he’ll react when John tests him. Ultimately it’s Willa who ends up receiving judgment first. Powell slits her open “like a second mouth.”
After the opening scene, it’s the spectacle of this murdered woman in a car at the bottom of a river that haunts me, and my writing. I love how she is framed so beautifully, hair streaming around her, but without the precision of modern cinema graphics. We cannot see in great sharpness the cut in her throat, or any blood. The camera does not pan smoothly down the scene. Still, it’s a heightened vision, a tableau of horror slightly removed from reality. When I write fiction, I find myself trying to imitate the creation of small, unreal scenes like this again and again, as if the attempt will solidify what is impossible to capture, the mingling point of intense existential and fairy tale dread.
To save themselves, the children take to the river. They slip across the dark water as Powell chases them making the most grotesque inhuman sounds – but the boat glides true, and the children are cast into a liminal place: night. I want to paint this part of the story in black celluloid and humid vapours. I want to write it in moonlight and silhouette. There’s Pearl, singing the lullaby “Pretty Fly”, the eeriness of the moment only enhanced by the fact that it’s not her voice singing, but another, dubbed over. There are the small animals watching from the banks. There is the night they spend in the barn, before having to run at dawn, sighting Powell on a rise, coming inexorably closer, a silhouette that is, like the murdered mother floating in the river, a horror that is just hazy and unreal enough to lurk at the back of your subconscious long after the film is over. But there’s something to be said about the point where analysis works to crumble its subject rather than reveal. Eventually, the children make it to Rachel Cooper’s house.
Superficially, we have the good, right Christian in the form of the woman on the porch. Rachel Cooper, like Harry, talks to God. She opens The Night of the Hunter speaking to the floating heads of children, telling them “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them”. She is the storyteller, the bringer of good news against the endlessness of the void. The message is apparently clear: we are supposed to take her as the grounding figure, the one that will win out against all villainy, the false faith, the man dueling with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E.
Having failed to see the fruits of his labours, Powell has turned violent, murderous, and animalistic. However, the re-introduction of Rachel complicates this theme. Rachel may be a storyteller and a kind old lady, but she is also a protagonist who has complex motivations beyond functioning as a sanctuary for John and Pearl. Her first gesture towards the children is to order them out of the boat and when they walk too slowly, to pick a switch and start beating them with it. In her garden, a small task force of children work at picking crops to sell in town. Her own son has abandoned her, for reasons unknown. How, then, is she different from Icey Spoon, a tyrant of self-assured moralising?
When she speaks to “wayward” bad girl Ruby who confesses, after giving John and Pearl’s location away to a sweet-talking Reverend, that she has “been with men,” Rachel simply hugs her and says, “Child… you were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how.”
Rachel allows that love is a difficult thing to get, far removed from the notions of ‘cleanness’ that Willa or Icey believed in. Even the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent can be muddied: a bank-robber who gets the chair can still have been a loving father. The executioner has daughters whose blissful sleep contrasts with his angst and wakefulness. A woman who has lost her own child’s affections can still provide a home and hope for those children who wander out of the starving land. When Powell comes calling, first at the front door, then in the night, it’s Rachel’s love mixed with grit that keeps him back. She will not be pushed aside like Willa, nor will she be taken in like Icey. She sees right through his Brother-love and Brother-hate act, and later, rather than let the children cower in the house, she tells them Bible stories salted with her own language. She might whip lost children, she might scowl and blunder, she might not be clean, well-mannered, or highly-regarded, but while the role of Rachel might have conceivably settled into an more familiar mold – the crone, the moral hypocrite, victim, the wicked stepmother – she is instead a fighter for the little ones.
And thanks to her, Harry Powell gets caught. But the film still won’t let us tie it up under a neat bow. John’s unexpected wails, the way he rushes over to Powell with the money he can no longer stand the weight of, jar us. Is John a victim of the reverend’s murderous charisma, or was the trauma too much for him? Or does John, in a way, find love even for Powell? Villain and father blur, past suffering—and the present desire for justice—get muddled.
In true noir, mystery, and fairy tale fashion, the film asks us to doubt the simplistic line drawn between wicked and good. Its scenes need shadows; shine your light too hard and the dark landscape becomes a battered old stage, and you discover that the eyes bugling wildly in the dark belong to a man just as human as the next. Above its dark, dreamy visuals, it’s this ambiguity that I take from The Night of the Hunter: the ambiguity of love, hate, and faith. A song sung low in a dark place.