Once in a great while I can get some of my kids to watch a classic movie with me. It helps that the movie earned 4 stars, and so it was, last Friday night, the 19 year old commuter college kid and the 12 year old 7th grader agreed to sit down with me, munch on popcorn, and watch The Night of the Hunter. Children!!!!
I added that previous word with the many exclamation points because it is a phrase uttered a lot by the main baddie of the plot, Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum, good looking, with a half-opened eye type of stare, he could play heroes with the best of them but when it came to playing a deviant, or in this film, a sociopath with no conscience-or only a slim one, he was one of the best. The man could sing,too! Mitchum’s character claims to be a traveling preacher, and several times in the film he is singing hymns aloud and I was pleasantly surprised by Mitchum’s strong voice.
This movie was Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort and it’s sad that when it came out in 1955 critics didn’t support it. I found it a stylishly lit and shot film by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an interesting and effective musical score by Walter Schumann and very well-acted by the adult and child actors. How hard it must have been for Mitchum, who was a dad in real life, making this movie where his character acts nice one minute to the two main children in the movie, and then in the next minute, he snaps at them in a sociopathic rage?? I hope he and director Laughton bought the kids a lot of ice cream and candy to make up for the scary stuff they had to deal with for the cameras!
The plot is pretty simple, based on the novel by Davis Grubb and screenplay by James Agee. It’s the early part of the Great Depression and Ben Harper(Peter Graves) is on the run. He’s robbed a bank and has a large stash of money that he needs to hide before he’s arrested by the state police who are hot on his heels. A bank guard was killed during the robbery. Harper sees his two kids playing in the yard of his home, John(stoically played by Billy Chapin) and Pearl(Sally Jane Bruce, who has an adorable speech impediment when trying to say her “R’s”). Harper grabs Miss Jenny, Pearl’s doll, and stuffs the money into the doll’s body and he makes the children swear that they won’t reveal to anyone where the money is hidden. As Harper is pushed to the ground and arrested in front of his kids, it’s sad as John starts to groan and utter “No!”, over and over, louder and louder with each utterance, as the pain of realizing that his dad will go to prison hits the boy.
Ben’s wife, Willa(played as if in a mental fog and excellently done by Shelley Winters) has no idea about the hidden money. As bad luck would have it, a sociopath who claims to be a preacher, Harry Powell(Robert Mitchum at his evil, crazy best) lands in the state prison for a stolen car and ends up being Ben’s cell mate. Powell knows Ben will soon face his date with the noose, so he tries to get Ben to spill in his sleep where the bank robbery money is hidden. Ben doesn’t spill and is hung for the murder of the bank guard. When Powell is released from prison, he searches for and finds the town where Willa and her kids live. Powell, turning on the charm, gets Willa’s bosses at the ice cream shop, Icey and Walt Spoon(Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe) to think he’s a nice guy and then Powell turns on his charm at Willa. Pearl likes Powell too, and it’s only John who is skeptical of this new man who soon has finagled his way into becoming Mom’s new husband.
Powell turns his criminal mind to Willa, breaking down her spirit into thinking she has to be “pure” and “clean” before he’ll show her any love. It’s a sad scene when she hears the real Powell lashing out verbally at Pearl, which Willa overhears as she’s walking home from work. She is smiling as she leaves the ice cream shop but when she hears Powell scream and say horrible threats to her 4 year old daughter, Willa’s face falls into a stunned look, because now she knows that John hasn’t been lying to her; Powell has been trying to get the children to reveal where the bank money is hidden, ergo, the marriage to this man is a sham.
Spoiler Alert: Willa isn’t long for this world and the scene where she is lying in her bed, with her hands folded as if in prayer, and Powell stands over her, dramatically with a large knife raised up over her, the framing shot or outline around the characters looks like an outline of a church around them-this movie is full of imagery, strongly referring to good and evil.
John and Pearl are asleep when their mother is murdered and Powell hides Willa’s body. He proceeds to turn on his charisma and tells sympathetic townsfolk that Willa ran away with another man, a traveling musician. With the mother gone, Powell turns on the pressure to get the children to reveal where the money is hidden. With a knife at John’s throat, Pearl finally buckles and tearfully shouts out that the money is in her doll. As Powell starts to laugh, while sitting on the cellar floor, John cleverly causes a shelf of canning jars to fall on Powell’s head and he and Pearl manage to run away and grab a john boat and head down the Ohio River. Powell can be heard groaning and screeching due to his head injury as he also tries to grab the children before they get to the boat. It’s a tense few minutes but the children succeed in escaping their evil stepfather’s clutches.
Lillian Gish enters the film at this point, as Rachel Cooper. We don’t know a lot about Rachel’s character. There’s no mention of a deceased husband, but just one son who she doesn’t see much anymore. She lives on a nice little farm and has taken upon herself to take in run away children and try to give them a good home and some spiritual sustenance too, with her nightly telling of bible stories. She takes in John and Pearl, and soon has a run-in with the pursuing Powell. There’s a scene at night, as he’s warned Rachel that he’ll come in the night for those two kids, and he is in the vicinity of the farm singing a hymn and Rachel is ready for him, sitting in her rocking chair with a shotgun in her hands, and she also begins to sing the same hymn, loudly, to let Powell know that she’s alert and he’d better watch out! It’s an intriguing scene, the dueling hymns, one sung by the embodiment of evil and one sung by the embodiment of good.
I’ll not give away anymore of this film’s plot because I want you to seek this movie out and view it for yourself. I would also be remiss for not mentioning 4 minor characters in the film: Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon, Willa’s boss. Varden makes Icey a loud, foolish busybody who pushes poor Willa to marry Powell. Don Beddoe is very good as Icey’s long-suffering husband who wisely doesn’t think Powell is all that wonderful. James Gleason as Uncle Birdy, a retired riverboat man, who is still grieving for his deceased wife and who’s old boathouse is a haven at times for John. It is Uncle Birdy who sadly finds Willa’s dead body in the river. Finally, Gloria Castillo as Ruby, the teen girl who Rachel has taken in. In Ruby’s desperate search for love, she bumps into Powell and spills the beans as to where John and Pearl are living and she unfortunately keeps thinking Powell might be a good man to fall in love with!
The Night of the Hunter is available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Turner Classic Movies will air it on November 11th at 8:00 pm ET/7:00 pm CT and it’s also available to buy at TCM’s Shop and it’s the Criterion Collection dvd that they’re selling. If you visit Youtube there are several clips posted from the movie, a trailer or two, and quite a few sites saying to click on their link and you can view the movie. My cynical side doesn’t trust those sites, so click on those links at your own discretion.
So grab some popcorn and favorite beverage, settle back, and let Robert Mitchum, as evil, crazy Harry Powell try to tell you the story of h-a-t-e and l-o-v-e, but be sure you have Lillian Gish and her shotgun on your side!