The other day, someone commented on my long-ago list of ten favourite Robert Mitchum roles. It reminded me that I hadn’t watched a Mitchum film in a long, long time (unpardonable, considering he’s one of my favourite actors). And, since Mitchum’s role as the chilling Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter is one of the landmark roles of his career—well, it did seem appropriate to review the film.
The Night of the Hunter looks a little odd when it begins: against a starry sky, the face of a sweet old lady (Lillian Gish, a far cry from her days of fame) appears, apparently beginning to tell a bedtime story to a small group of children. The children’s faces, bright and eager and innocent, mirror hers. There seems, from their expressions and that of the old lady’s, that there is no evil in the world. Or, at least, that this lot are unaware of it.
But the old lady’s voice goes on, quoting from the Bible, Matthew 7, warning of the evil fruit that is borne of evil.
We move on again, this time to Harry Powell (Mitchum), driving along a country road in a beat-up car, chatting with God (no, not Don Camillo style; there is no God answering here, and Powell’s conversation, though addressed to the Almighty, is really him talking to himself). Powell is talking about widows, lonely widows with that little wad of bills hidden away in the sugarbowl…
Next, we find him at a show, watching—with undisguised contempt—as a showgirl struts her stuff on stage. Powell, gritting his teeth and quoting scripture to himself about the evil of women of loose morals, clenches his fist, and we see, stenciled across the fingers of his left hand, the word that epitomises Harry Powell.
He plunges his fist into his pocket and grabs a knife, but doesn’t get any further, because the police catch up with him just then. Harry Powell is dragged off, and the next time we see him it’s before a magistrate who’s sentencing him to a month in prison for having stolen a car. When the judge addresses the prisoner as ‘Harry Powell’, Harry is quick to politely correct the man: “Preacher Harry Powell.”
The scene shifts again, back to the countryside and a sleepy yard where two children—John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are playing. They’re interrupted by the sudden arrival of a car, from which comes, at a run, their father Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Ben is jittery, and though John goes running up to him, Ben’s eyes are scanning the yard and around even as he talks swiftly to himself.
It becomes apparent, from the disjointed bits we hear Ben say to himself, that he’s stolen the wad of money he’s holding in his hand, and he’s now desperately seeking someplace to hide it before the police—who are on his trail—catch up.
We don’t get to see where Ben hides the money, but by the time the police arrive and arrest Ben, he’s made John and Pearl promise they won’t tell anyone. It’s for them he’s done this, and they’re the only ones who need know where the money is.
Ben, therefore, is jailed—and sentenced to death for killing two men during the course of that robbery. While he’s waiting to be hanged, Ben shares a cell with none other than Harry Powell. Harry soon cottons onto the fact that an overwrought and tense Ben talks in his sleep, and by the time Ben is hanged, Harry Powell knows that somewhere out there, in his house or nearby, Ben has hidden a stash of stolen money. There’s going to be a mourning widow and two children, but no matter.
And so Harry Powell arrives in the little town where Ben’s widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is trying to make ends meet by working at Icey Spoon’s (Evelyn Varden’s) store. Icey Spoon is a busybody. Well-meaning, but a busybody, and she’s been telling Willa that a woman needs a man to look after her, and Willa should be getting married again.
…when who should come along but Harry Powell, good-looking and friendly, and oh, so God-fearing. He tells them he used to work at the penitentiary where Ben Harper was imprisoned, but resigned after Harper was executed—it shook him up so much. But Harper had told him (Powell) all about his little family back here, so he’s come to say hello.
Ms Spoon and Willa are quickly taken in. Harry quotes scripture to them, and when little Pearl and John are summoned (and Pearl notices Harry’s hands) he even gives the children—and the adults—a demonstration of the eternal battle between love and hate, good and evil. Powell’s hands, one with LOVE written across the outside, the other with HATE, tussle and wrestle with each other, HATE now getting the upper hand, but eventually LOVE triumphing.
Icey Spoon, shrewd as ever, wastes no time in inviting Harry Powell to a local picnic.
At the picnic, it soon becomes apparent that Icey Spoon’s matchmaking is hardly required, since both Willa and Harry Powell seem to be pretty attracted to each other. John is old enough to guess what’s happening, and isn’t happy about it. He does not, however, sulk or kick up a fuss. And he’s hardly surprised when Willa brings Harry Powell to the two children to let Harry announce to them that he’s going to be their Daddy now.
Little Pearl is very happy—she likes Harry, and Harry is quick to take advantage and butter her up. John is obviously distressed by this news. Even a visit to his dear old Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), who lives in a shack by the river, does little to cheer John. Birdie is getting a little boat ready, and promises John they’ll soon go out fishing in it. That’s one ray of sunshine in John’s life, but other than that, things are beginning to look pretty bleak…
…because Willa is now Mrs Powell, and Harry has started to question John: Where did Ben hide the money he had stolen? John tries to fob Harry off by saying he doesn’t know, but Harry isn’t accepting that.
As for Willa, she’s undergone a sea change. From being the romantic blushing bride on her wedding night, she’s turned into a Bible-thumping woman who raves, in special prayer meetings headed by her new husband, about how it was her wickedness that drove her first husband to commit murder. How her desires for new clothes, perfumes and face paint drove Ben to steal money to satisfy those desires, and eventually to kill two men in the process.
Willa’s brainwashing has begun on her terribly unromantic wedding night itself, when Harry, lying on his side when she enters the bedroom, admonishes her for interrupting his prayers, and tells her off for expecting any sort of conjugal bliss. Marriage, he says, is—according to the scripture—meant for procreation. And Willa has two children already. Does she need more? Willa, looking unsure, admits she doesn’t. Very well, then. Companionship and spiritual upliftment are all she’s going to get.
Harry has Pearl—too small and too innocent to realize this man’s evil—in his grasp, but his attempts to extract the whereabouts of the money come to naught; John manages to stop Pearl every time, and Pearl anyway becomes distracted quickly.
Until one night, in a striking scene, eerie and unforgettable, Harry Powell murders Willa. With her out of the way, it’s going to be far easier for him to get the children to blurt out the secret only they seem to know.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film to be directed by acclaimed actor Charles Laughton (who also starred in one of my favourite courtroom dramas, the superb Witness for the Prosecution). It’s a memorable film about evil—pure, unmitigated evil, untempered by anything approaching goodness—and it’s a very good noir. Not in a ‘mystery’ sense (the suspense about where the money is hidden gets cleared, to the audience, before half the film is over), but in a chilling, what-if-this-was-happening-to-me way. What if someone as ruthless as Harry Powell was after me? What if I was just a little kid, with no parents to fall back upon? What if I knew he wouldn’t rest until he’d beaten the truth out of me? And—even scarier—killed me?
Frightening, chilling, and really quite haunting. If you like noir, don’t miss this one.
What I liked about this film:
Plenty. Robert Mitchum, for one, who is evil personified here. He’s ruthless, and the very fact that he can be so charming, so attractive, even so (at least superficially, in what he says) ‘righteous’, makes his character even more repulsive. A superb portrayal.
The juxtapositions, of many things. Of good and evil (in their very basic forms: the innocent, even naïve, goodness of people like Willa Harper and Icey Spoon on the one hand, and Harry Powell on the other). Of silence and tranquility (though some of that is just a tense and dread-filled waiting), versus noise and sudden, swift bursts of violent action. Of light and shade.
The light and shade is carried over quite literally, too, in the memorable cinematography of The Night of the Hunter. One especially disturbing scene is the one where Harry Powell kills Willa. She is lying in bed on her back, her arms folded over her chest, having just finished her prayers. Harry comes into the room—which has a sloping roof that casts striking shadows across Harry, Willa, and the room. The dialogue between them, the setting, the words they speak: everything combines to form an upturned and grotesque parody of the church that Powell goes on talking about. She is the one confessing her sins; he is the one hearing her and passing judgment. And what a judgment.
The songs. The Night of the Hunter uses songs to create atmosphere. Snatches of song, nearly all of them sung in the night, just a voice (and in one dramatic instance, two voices in what can only be called a vocal duel), no music. Little Pearl, sitting in a drifting boat and singing quietly to her doll while John lies asleep. An unknown, unseen woman singing a lullaby to a baby in a shed at night. Harry Powell, riding a horse on a moonlit horizon and singing a hymn—Leaning on the everlasting arms—in a deep, sonorous voice that echoes hauntingly across. Powell, singing that same song again, while sitting out in the dark, like a predator waiting for its prey to relax its guard…
Lastly, the depiction of the religious fanaticism. Not just Harry Powell’s fanaticism (which, after all, is to a large extent a cloak to help him win his way into communities for his own ‘enrichment’), but the fanaticism of others. Of people like Willa Harper, who starts off seeming normal, but ends up being brainwashed and made to believe she is the repository of all the seven sins (and more). It’s scary, the way religion—supposed to make people ‘better’—actually ends up making them intolerant and merciless, even inhuman. Not a new phenomenon, and Laughton shows it up excellently in this film.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional instance of slightly overdone acting on the part of the children, especially Billy Chapin. While some of the scenes are subtle and understated (in particular, Billy Chapin’s scenes with Lillian Gish), there are moments that could have been better. And one scene—in a courtroom, with little John Harper and a lawyer whose hands and arms fill most of the frame—is distinctly heavy-handed.
In the final analysis, though, that’s something I can live with. The rest of the film, and all that is hauntingly memorable about it, more than makes up for its shortcomings.
Little bit of trivia:
The character of Harry Powell was based on that of the real-life Harry Powers (born Herman Drenth). Powers was charged with the murder of two women and three children, and was executed in 1932.
Robert Mitchum later said that this was his favourite of all the films he’d acted in.
There is a rumour floating around that Charles Laughton couldn’t tolerate children, so Mitchum actually directed his child co-stars in The Night of the Hunter, but this seems to be a fallacy.