Spoiler Warning


Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Night of the Hunter


What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")

"The Night of the Hunter" is in my mind a truly unique film. It was the only film that Charles Laughton ever directed, although Robert Mitchum stated that Laughton was the best film director he'd ever worked for. Laughton wasn't new to directing, having directed many plays, as is evident in his ability to get the most out of any set, making the most mundane scenery frightening and otherworldly.

While containing plenty of social commentary and boiling down to the story of "left hand, right hand" this film is a masterpiece of terror and mood. Even some possible "flaws" in the movie such as Mitchum's expositional dialogue, work with the character, who we realize is playing his own game. Surreal elements such as the floating heads in the opening or Pearl's river boat song may leave you scratching your head for a moment, but they work in this film, confirming the sense that we might not be seeing the whole story. While Harry is confirmed to be just a man, we sense in his menace that he's not an ordinary man, having a gift for being in the right place at the right time, and seemingly an inescapable reach.

Mitchum's shadow itself is a menacing thing here, combined with his twisting of traditional spiritual songs. And importantly, Mitchum is one of few actors with enough character to give his actual presence in daylight enough menace to match that foreboding shadow. Harry is a character that is capable of anything and anyone who could threaten him is powerless. Ben Harper for example, sees him for what he is and isn't afraid to challenge or call him on his act, yet he's on the way to execution. Uncle Birdie could ruin his whole scheme, yet he passes out drunk afraid of his own past, rather than help the children. Icey Spoons is so preoccupied with her matchmaking that even after Willa "runs away" she doesn't see a problem with two kids hiding in their cellar to keep away from Harry. None of the townspeople question his intentions, too busy attending to their own affairs, they plug him into their preconceptions.

Only Rose Cooper is a match for Harry, independent minded and having the faith that Harry only plays at, but in an equally unconventional way. She's not afraid of Harry's oddness, hearing his creepy singing, she sings along, taking the power back from him. She's equally unimpressed by his over the top presentation, seeing right through his con man facade. Harry's match has to be an outsider as much as he is, because he's well versed in using social convention to suit his own purposes. While Rose can be stern, she is amazingly accepting of her children. When Ruby falls for Harry's talk, she doesn't scold her, but realizes she's only looking to be loved and appreciated. Rose is also someone who John and Pearl, don't find intentionally. She finds them and orders them into her house. Harry also comes into their lives, with no action on their own part. That and the exaggerated contrast between the two characters suggests that larger forces are at work.

Billy Chapin is terrific as John Harper, although a child, and mostly powerless, his refusal to give in to Harry, is tremendous and sold terrifically. Although being a child has many disadvantages, while his mother is alive, it also provides him some protection. The silent stand off between John and Harry is intense, although we don't believe he's a match for Harry's ruthlessness. When his mother's gone, he rightly assumes that their only hope is to run. Pearl is not much help, being very young and changeable. She doesn't know why she can't sing "Hing, Hang, Hung" or why she can't tell Harry everything. Despite this, she doesn't break her promise until she believes it will save her brother's life.

Children have it tough in this world, and the general public would rather not see it. Everyone turns a blind eye to their plight until the damage is already done. Ben Harper's speech to Harry in prison touches on this. Ben has seen the children abandoned everywhere, just as Rose has seen them. These are the only two characters who do anything about it. The townspeople, for all their apathy, then claim outrage later, demanding Harry's lynching as if this will involve them retroactively. Icey in particular, represents this idea, practically forcing Willa to get married, not questioning Harry's claim that she ran away or the dirty kids hiding in a basement, and later on a note Harry leaves, that they've all left to get some space, and then marching to the courthouse with an axe. They miss the fact that the lynching terrifies the children as much as Harry ever did. Rose gets this and does her best to keep them clear of the angry townspeople. Another interesting touch is John's compassion. Despite everything that Harry put them through, and his certain intent to kill him and Pearl, when he sees the cops handling Harry like they did his father, he begs them to stop. In this moment, John becomes more powerful than Harry.

While it does offer some social commentary, the true legacy of the film is Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell, one of the most terrifying characters to ever hit the screen. Everything in the movie serves to increase his menace, the over the top score, which announces his arrival, his knack for creepy entrances, even the fact that his chosen victims are widows and kids. This is a psychopath that thinks he talks to God directly. You might even wonder if he does receive guidance, as skilled as he is at tracking the children. At times he seems unstoppable, and any setback, temporary. John locks him in the cellar, but moments later we hear the door shatter into pieces. His shadow, his songs, and his face, all suggest pure evil. It isn't until the end when his expression changes almost comically, being frightened by a cat, that his spell is broken. Once broken, he can't get it back, his absurd scampering into the barn is anything but threatening, followed by John's pleading with the cops over him, and then to await execution. But for a while, I had to wonder if the kids or anyone, had any chance at all. So Love triumphs over Hate, but Hate sure did put on a good and creepy show.




  What Happens?

The Night of the Hunter opens with thundering menacing music, followed by a Sunday school lesson taught by Rachel Cooper, (Lillian Gish)  a sincere sounding woman, to a group of children. The woman and the children are represented by floating heads in a star field. She tells them to beware of false prophets before they fade out and we wonder who she's warning us about.



We next witness a group of kids playing a game of hide and seek, which doesn't go as planned, when they find a woman's dead body. We soon catch up with Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) driving a car away that from town while talking to God in a surprising way.
Well now, What's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many's it been? 6? 12? I just remembered. You say the word Lord, I'm on my way.
He drives a little further and continues,
Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that you mind the killings, your book is full of killings,but there are things you do hate Lord, perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair.

We then find him in a darkened theater watching stone faced as a girl on stage does a strip tease. He reaches his left hand (which has HATE tattooed on its fingers) in his jacket pocket and we see the blade of his knife pop through the jacket as if he couldn't control himself.  He look upwards as if towards God, and remarks "There's too many of them. You can't kill the world." His reverie is interrupted by a police officer's hand on his shoulder. The officer questions him about his car, which it turns out,is stolen. Harry is brought before a judge and sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing the car.

We then see a little boy John Harper, (Billy Chapin) and girl, Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce) playing together in their yard. Their father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves,)  rushes into the driveway in a panic. The boy notices he's bleeding, but the father doesn't talk about that, he needs to hide $10,000.00 and is trying to think of a place to do it fast. He finds a place, but we're not shown where it is. We see the police coming down the driveway after him. They discuss him being armed. The father takes a minute to talk to his son, He makes the boy promise to guard his sister Pearl with his life and not to tell anyone, including his mother, where the money is hidden. He makes Pearl swear also and then gives himself up to the police now surrounding him. The kids watch him get cuffed and taken away.

Ben is next seen in a courtroom where he's sentenced to death. We then see him in a cell he shares with Harry. Ben is talking in his sleep about money, as Harry tries to coax more details out of him. Ben wakes up and takes a swing at Harry, aware of what he was doing. Harry says "You killed two men Ben Harper"
Ben: That's right Preacher. I robbed that bank because I got tired of seeing children roaming the woodlands without food, children roaming the highways in sheer depression, children sleeping in old abandoned car bodies in junkheaps. And, I promised myself I'd never see the day when my youngins would want.
Harry tries to convince him that "Salvation is a last minute business."  and assures him that giving the money to him would help his chances with God. Ben points out Harry's knife hidden under his blanket. Harry justifies it by quoting scripture,saying "I come not with peace but a sword." Ben asks what religion he practices and Harry answers "the religion the almighty and me worked out betwixt us."  Ben tunes him out and Harry thanks God for putting him in the cell with Ben, mentioning his widow in the making. We next see a guard and the executioner leaving Ben's execution sadly, remarking that he never broke or told about the money.

We see the other kids taunting John and Pearl singing "Hing, Hang, Hung, see what the hangman done." drawing hanging scenes in chalk and laughing while John and Pearl endure the abuse quietly. John and Pearl look at things in a store window, Pearl asking John if he's going to buy something. The shopkeeper comes out and asks John where his father hid the money he stole. John glares at her and says they have to go. Walking away, Pearl innocently starts singing "Hing Hang Hung." before John stops her. They pass by "Spoons" the shop where their mother, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) works. She waves at her kids to keep going. Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden,) the owner and Willa's boss, tells her that a woman can't raise kids alone, but Willa says "I just don't want a husband." Right on cue, we see a dark train accompanied by ominous music, bringing Harry Powell to town.

That night when John and Pearl are in bed, John tells Pearl a story about a rich king in Africa with a son and daughter. The king was taken away by bed men and told this son to kill anyone who tries to steal his gold. (We see the shadow of Harry's hat appear in the window curtains) John looks out the window and sees Harry standing at their fence in the dark singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" He tells Pearl "It's just a man" and we hear Harry's voice echoing in the distance. The next morning John goes to visit "Uncle Birdie" (James Gleason) a friend of his father's who lives on a houseboat and is repairing Ben's skiff. He tells John that a man is in town that knew his dad from prison and that he'll have the skiff repaired soon.

We then find Harry in Spoons,telling everyone that he had ministered to Ben in his last days and had then resigned his job with the prison, as the heartbreak was too much to bear, and come to town to offer a word of hope to the grieving widow. Icey, who had previously encouraged her to get married is very impressed with Harry. John and Pearl walk in on the scene and John is obviously skeptical.Harry notices John staring at his hands (one tattooed LOVE, the other HATE) He says
"Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t'other. Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!"

 

Icey is already quite taken with Harry, as is Pearl, who rushes up onto Harry's lap. John glares at him, suspiciously. Harry acts as if he has to leave, to get them to insist that he stay a while. Harry mentions to the kids that Ben had told him alot about them. John asks about what he had told him, and Harry answer, "good things." We flash to Harry at the town picnic next, leading everyone in song and staying close toWilla. Icey has another talk with Willa, telling her that she needs to get settled down with Harry right away. Willa reveals that she likes him but is concerned that Harry thinks she has the money hidden somewhere. On Icey's encouragement she asks him directly. He tells Willa that Ben told him the money is at the bottom of a river which makes Willa feel better, but Harry notices John's smirk when he relates this.

After visiting Uncle Birdie, John returns home to check on Pearl and finds Harry the only one at home. Harry informs John that he's going to marry his mother and that they're all "going to be friends" Harry and Willa go off on their honeymoon and Pearl asks John if she can tell Mr.Powell where the money is. John gets angry and tells her absolutely not. Pearl says that she "loves Mr.Powell lots and lots." Willa gets ready for her wedding night, putting on a negligee,only to have Harry scold her:
Harry: You thought, Willa, that the moment you walked in that door, I'd start to paw at you in that abominable way that men are supposed to do on their wedding night. Ain't that right, now?
Willa: No, no, no.
Harry: I think it's time we made one thing perfectly clear, Willa. Marriage to me represents the blending of two spirits in the sight of Heaven. Get up, Willa.
Willa: Harry, what...?
Harry: Get up. Now go look at yourself yonder in that mirror. Do as I say. Look at yourself. What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men! Do you want more children, Willa?
Willa: I... no.
Harry: It's the business of this marriage to mind the two you have now. Not to beget more.
Willa: Yes
Harry: Alright, you can get in bed now. Stop shivering.
Willa Harper: [praying] Help me to be clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be.

In the morning John is out fishing with Uncle Birdie, who reminds him that if he's ever in trouble to come see him. We then find Willa testifying before a crowd, telling them that she drove a good man to murder, by "hounding him for perfumes and face paint" while Harry stands close by looking on. She gets Harry's interest when she describes Ben telling her to take the money,only to be disappointed when she claims the Lord stepped in and told him to throw it in the river instead. Pearl is playing by herself in the yard. She has taken all the money out of her doll and is cutting up paper dolls out of bills. John finds her and they start stuffing it back into the doll.

Harry comes up behind them telling them to go to bed,while John acts calm so he doesn't come closer. Harry confronts John about "telling on him" about asking where the money was. Harry tells him that it doesn't matter because she believes him now. He keeps asking John about it, and when John won't tell, he turns to Pearl, telling her that her father said there should be no secrets between them. Pearl throws a hairbrush at Harry to stop Pearl from telling. Harry takes Pearl off alone and asks her about the money, threatening to "tear her arm off" in frustration. Willa comes home and overhears this but tries to act calm as if she hadn't heard anything. Harry knows she heard and confronts her about it.She confronts him and he slaps her.She acts as if the money doesn't matter, but Harry takes out his knife and kills her. John wakes up hearing loud noises as Harry starts the car and removes the body.

Harry goes into Spoons the next morning and tells them that Willa "ran away" He sobs and acts disconsolate. Icey tries to comfort him and says "What could have possessed that girl?" to which Harry responds matter of factly "Satan." He claims that he had suspicions from the first night, when she "turned him out of the bed." He makes up a story about her drinking wine before bed last night and that he did his best to try and save her. We see Willa's body still in a car at the bottom of the river where Uncle Birdie is fishing. When his hook won't budge (hooked on the car) he looks down and sees her clearly through the water.

Harry goes home and calls the children, who are hiding in the basement. John has already figured that his mother is dead. He tells Pearl that they have to run away or "something terrible will happen" Pearl doesn't understand but agrees. He opens the door to the cellar, telling the children he hears them. Icey shows up for an unannounced visit just before he goes downstairs. He tells her they won't mind him and she calls them. They listen to her and come upstairs.

Uncle Birdie wrestles over what to do with his information, convinced that if he reports it they'll think it was him. He gets drunk and talks to a picture of his dead wife about it. Harry has put a big dinner on the table and won't let John and Pearl eat until they tell their secret. Pearl won't say a word, insisting that she promised John she wouldn't. He calls John a meddler, and shows them his knife which he "uses on meddlers" John then acts as if he'll tell to spare Pearl. He tells Harry that the money is in the cellar, but doesn't realize that Harry will insist they go look with him.

When Harry realizes it's not there, he holds a knife to John, prompting Pearl to finally tell him that it's in the doll. Harry laughs at what a good hiding place it was, and John takes the opportunity to pull the support from a shelf so the contents land on Harry's head. They run up the stairs with Harry chasing them. John slams Harry's fingers in the door just before he catches them. They lock him in, and run to see Uncle Birdie. Harry breaks the door down before long and chases after them.They find Uncle Birdie passed out drunk, so they run for their father's skiff and take to the river as Harry crashes through the dark woods after them.

They barely evade him, leaving him in the water screaming because the water's too deep for him to follow. Pearl sings a song as John gets some sleep. Harry finds a horse and follows the river by land. John and Pearl follow the river quite a ways, stopping to beg for food, and when they find a barn where they hide and try to sleep. John however, hears Harry singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in the distance and sees his silhouette on a horse in the distance. John remarks "Don't he ever sleep?" They run for the boat and take off again. Falling asleep, they don't realize the boat has washed onto shore where Rachel Cooper finds them and orders them to get in the house.



Rachel has many children around, who she takes in and takes care of. She gets them John and Pearl washed and fed and accepts them into her house. She brings them into town where she has trouble with one of her girl's, Ruby, who seems to have an eye for the boys in town. At night Rachel tells them all Bible stories, intentionally choosing the story of Moses and telling them he was washed up to shore in a skiff in order to make it relate to John and Pearl. She has a talk with John alone that night, and he tells her his parents are dead. He asks her to tell him the story again. Ruby has made her way into town and one of the town boys approaches her only to be cut off by Harry appearing out of nowhere offering to buy her things. He flatters her, telling her she's pretty, although he gets up immediately and leaves when he gets the information on Pearl and John from her. Ruby feels guilty and confesses to Rachel that she has been lying about going to town for sewing lessons to see men. She reveals that the man she met that night asked about Pearl and John, which gets Rachel thinking.

The next morning Harry shows up at her place to claim them, claiming that they're his kids. Rachel is icy towards him, having little interest in the story of left hand, right hand. but she calls Pearl and John anyway. John says that he isn't their Dad,and Rachel adds "and he ain't no preacher neither." He starts chasing the kids but stops when Rachel pulls a shotgun on him. That night he comes back and sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in the dark just outside the house.  Rachel sits on the porch with her shotgun in her lap and takes up singing the song herself.

She gets all the kids together to watch them more easily, and tells them the story of Herod looking for baby Jesus while she paces with the shotgun. We hear Harry in the house saying smugly "Figured I was gone, didn't ya?" Rachel tells him she'll count to three before coming across the kitchen to shoot him. Harry pops up on screen, scared by a screeching cat and Rachel wounds him with the shotgun sending him running screaming into her barn. She calls the cops and tells them she has "something trapped in the barn."

The cops arrive and Harry stumbles out of the barn. John sees them cuff Harry just like they did his father and breaks down, saying "Here! Here! It's too much!" breaking Pearl's doll on Harry's back sending money flying out. Later, John is called to testify against Harry,but he stays silent. The town is an an uproar, demanding Harry's lynching, which further scares the kids. Rachel tries to keep them clear of the activity, while the townspeople carry axes, rope and whatever weapons they can find.  They police take Harry out the back door, remarking to the executioner that "we're saving this bird for you!" He remarks "This time it will be a pleasure"

At Rachel's house it's Christmas morning and they all exchange gifts. Rachel remarks "Lord,save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way. My souls is humbled when I see the way little ones accept their lot. The wind blow and the rains a cold. Yet they abide." Pearl and John finally appear safe and comfortable.




6 comments:

Paul S said...

Another great review Brett,once again I'm very impressed by your attention to detail.
The Night Of The Hunter is a very scary film with Robert Mitchum's Harry the embodiment of pure evil.
I think the fact that it was filmed in black and white really helps to add to the sense of terror.
Charles Laughtons direction was remarkable, which makes it hard to believe that this was the only film he ever directed !!

Brent said...

Thanks Paul! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I don't have enough words for Mitchum's performance here. You don't see actors like him too often. The interesting thing abou this movie is that it skirts the line of becoming laughably over the top,but due to very intentional direction and Mitchum's gravity, it only becomes more chilling for those aspects. I completely agree about it being a shame Laughton didn't direct more films. He had such a distinctive vision.

Widow_Lady302 said...

On a side and completely comical note is it wrong I cheer anytime Shelley Winters bites the dust in a movie? I'm sure it is, but that woman has always annoyed me. And on with my comment.

Before I was widowed and knew this story only like a story, I was convinced the love/hate tattoo was the most important theme in the movie. It all boils down to those opposites. Each person in the movie playing their part as either love or hate, sometimes crossing over the line. I agree, Ruth was the only person who was a match for him and ironically her name comes from the biblical story, in which Ruth is often symbolic of kindness and the well being of others. So the name fits as a 'protector for the children' and as a person willing to do anything to achieve that.

After being Widowed I looked on this as a widow parable, in an odd way. Harry is what every widowed woman fears. He is the mechanic that rooks her into paying 100 extra on her bill for a pipe stretching service. Or the plumber that she thinks might over charge her for something her husband used to do. I also see a symbolism in the disconnect between the people surrounding the Widow, each believing they know what' best for her, and her allowing their influences to make the wrong move, because she isnt sure what the right move really is. Eventually, she catches on, but it's too late for her...Just like the insecurity I've spoken some about in my blog. They fear becoming Hilla in one way or another. Some do become her on one or two levels.

Anywho, great review!

Brent said...

Hi Lisa,

Well sure, the widow elements make perfect sense, and are an integral part of the story. You make great and valid points about that aspect, and if she made it o the end of the money I would've focused more on that myself. Icey's "guidance" of Willa is really what pushes her all the way into her inevitable conclusion. Rather than protecting her vulnerable friend, Icey pushes her towards someone else in order to clear her own mind and conscience perhaps. THe townspeople are all pretty useless, towards Willa as much as the kids.

Widow_Lady302 said...

Symbolically the townspeople are a PERFECT representation of how young and old widows are treated, and to a huge degree orphans as well. (which the children obviously become thanks to the 'help' of Icey.)

Brent said...

Yes, I can see that. I think the name "Icey" is no accident!