Sunday Reads: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: A Depression-Era Folktale

On Robert Mitchum’s centennial, we celebrate his finest performance: the psychotic preacher Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's 1955 masterpiece.

One upon a time, a brother and a sister held a great treasure given unto them by their fallen father. The treasure was kept hidden, and only they knew where it lay. But a foul, towering beast dressed in fine clothes pursued them, eager to get his claws on the riches.

Based on Davis Grubb’s 1953 bestselling novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by James Agee, The Night of The Hunter has been called everything from Gothic noir to thriller-fantasy; I’ve even seen the term “proto-slasher” bandied about (thought I’d reserve that label for 1960’s Peeping Tom). But between the child protagonists and their favored POV, Walter Schumann’s fever dream-like musical score (lacing hymnals and children's songs conspicuously throughout), and the dark themes distilled through Biblical parables, I’m going to call the movie what it is. The Night Of The Hunter is a folktale, and Harry Powell (the Preacher) is its monster.

Framed like the Germanic lore shared by the Brothers Grimm centuries before, the oral storytelling tradition itself is interwoven throughout the narrative from the jump. The film opens upon the God-fearing Rachel (Lillian Gish) delivering a preamble to a rapt audience of children about King Solomon and wolves in sheep’s clothing. A chorus sings “Dream, Little One, Dream” as she speaks against the backdrop of a pastoral starry sky. The bedtime story begins.

Children play outside of a rural home in the Ohio River Valley, giggling and running about, when they discover a woman’s body in the doorway of the basement. Rachel’s voice again descends from the heavens: “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.”

The corrupt tree enters in the form of the Preacher (Robert Mitchum). Constantly gazing skyward and delivering sermonettes with all of the bombast of a snake oil salesman, he perverts holy scripture to justify his own diabolical desires. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat and a slick grin, the Preacher quickly establishes himself as a false prophet in a conversation with his Creator. He reveals that he acts upon divine influence to marry rich widows and later murder them for their money. He is a monster in all but appearance, representing everything dangerous in our human nature. When the Preacher goes to a burlesque show, he stares at the dancer not with lust, but with hate. As she arouses him with her feminine wiles, his switchblade knife flicks open in his pocket and he imagines “punishing” her with it for her sinful temptation. He is a predator who walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. It’s true that his victims are the women he murders, but they’re also the townspeople he bamboozles with his fervent evangelical diatribes. The wolf preaches fire and brimstone to the sheep using his inked hands (knuckles tattooed with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E, respectively) as props for his sermons.

During a stint in prison, Powell learns that his cellmate left a tidy $10,000 hidden away with his two young children, John and Pearl, who live with their mother, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). Like the Big Bad Wolf calling upon Grandma’s house, Powell actively seeks out a prize and forms his lair around it. He gets in good with Willa and convinces her to marry him, but nine-year-old John is having none of it. John correctly suspects that his new stepfather is only looking for the money, and he is sworn to secrecy (even from his own mother) as to its exact location. The Preacher tries to smooth-talk his way into getting the kids to give up the secret, but when that doesn’t work he gets angry, very angry indeed.

At one point, Powell is likened to Bluebeard of the Charles Perrault fairy tale. Indeed, the menacing Henry Powell was inspired by real-life West Virginian mass-murderer Harry Powers, dubbed “the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell.” On his way to seduce Willa, he looks skyward and thanks God for bestowing in his path “a man with ten thousand dollars and a widow in the making.” He holds a righteous disgust for women, even turning down Willa’s effort to consummate their new marriage and shaming her for attempting to use her body for anything other than procreation. Once he is convinced that Willa doesn’t know where the money is hidden, Powell raises his left hand (tattooed with H-A-T-E) towards the heavens, seemingly asking for guidance, and then promptly turns and dispatches her in a highly experimental and masterful scene.

The Preacher is ranked #71 on Premiere magazine's list of 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time, and Mitchum himself has called Harry Powell his favorite character, precisely because of how dark and unusual it was for the time. He brought his usual sleepy-eyed air of disinterest to a character who has no empathy, while peppering his performance with bits of buffoonery - for both comedic effect and to just make Powell seem that much more crazy. The result is a successfully iconic portrayal of a psychopathic villain. 

The film adheres to an atmosphere of a child’s nightmare, processing the dualities of good and evil, heaven and earth, and guilt and innocence through Stanley Cortez’s striking black-and-white cinematography. Contrasting moods of horror and beauty alternate (and converge, with Willa’s death) throughout the film with nods to old-school German expressionism, but the focus primarily lies with Mitchum’s chilling villain.

Powell’s encounters with the children consistently present him as a monster in human form. When Powell first shows up at Willa Harper’s home, it’s as striking as the Count’s initial reveal in Dracula; John’s bedtime story to his sister is interrupted by the towering silhouette of the Preacher’s head, obscuring John and casting a foreboding shadow on the wall of the children's bedroom as little Pearl audibly gasps. Over the next few days Powell tries and fails to get the little piggies to let him in on the secret, and proceeds to huff and puff with his switchblade out. After a later confrontation with the children in their basement, Powell leaps forward after them with arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s Creature as they ascend the staircase, a demon attempting to pull the innocent souls back down to the darkness. As he chases the siblings to the river where they make a daring escape, Powell is shown from young John’s perspective: a shadowed, stalking giant, all but yelling “fi-fie-fo-fum” as he hacks his way through the thicket on the riverbank. In a final showdown with the pious and pure Rachel (who evokes a memorable image of Whistler’s Mother, but with a shotgun in her lap), a wounded Powell literally yelps and howls like a feral animal as he scurries away for cover. When all is said and done, the children do learn the requisite moral of the tale: that no amount of money is worth the suffering its brought them. Their happily ever after lies in the contentment they feel with what they already have.

Like any monster worth his salt, Powell is the embodiment of evil. With his respectable garb he is both menacing to the children and benign to the adults (save for the ever-vigilant Rachel), a figurative wolf in sheep’s clothing. And like every monster ever since Beowulf’s Grendel stormed the halls of Heorot, Powell is egocentric above all. Beneath his charismatic exterior lies an absolute absence of pity, only hate (no matter what his knuckles say). Powell covets that cash money, and will strike down anyone who stands in his way. In his compelling performance, Robert Mitchum glides effortlessly between holy-rolling charm and righteous fury, which makes his character all the more terrifying in a film that holds a unique identity in the thriller genre.