Well folks, it’s happened again. We’ve come across another year on this trip through our Cinematic Century that is absolutely loaded with great films. There was a clear front-runner for me this year, and it’s the film we’ll be discussing today, but it’s pretty shocking to see just how many great films were released in 1955. One of the best things about this project has been to put so many of these films in context, seeing what their contemporary films were, and in some cases having my mind blown by what a stellar year it would have been as a cinephile. I love Night of the Hunter, and there really wasn’t any question that it was going to be my favorite film of 1955, but there’s still a slew of films that I would heartily recommend from the year. The biggest of which is probably Rebel Without a Cause. I feel like that film often suffers from its own reputation, usually being dismissed as a weird little bit of moody teenage entertainment, but it’s actually a fascinating film. It really examines unhappiness, and the destructive lives we lead when we’re young and assume that no one knows what we’re going through, and really shows you what a raw talent that James Dean was. We also could have talked about the terrific French film Diabolique, one of the twistiest and darkest crime thrillers I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been spending most of the last few weeks sharing the darkest American’s noir I could find with you. On the opposite side of the spectrum we could have discussed Pather Panchali, a tremendous and deeply moving Indian film that will tug at your heart more effectively than almost any other film I’ve ever seen, it just falls into that awkward category where I would never consider it one of my favorite films. Closer to that mark would probably be Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, since we all know what a huge Hitchcock fan I am, but while it’s a fun little movie, it’s far lighter and fluffier than I like my Hitch. We even got noir B-movie goodness from Kiss Me Deadly, and the first major film from Stanley Kubrick, which also features a deadly ax-fight from Killer’s Kiss. Or Marty, which is an entire movie that’s thesis ends up being “ugly jerks need love too.” All of these films are great, and worth your time, but there’s one that stands above them all to me. And it’s the one featuring a homicidal preacher attempting to murder some children!
And, as with a staggering amount of the crime-related films I’ve discussed so far on Cinematic Century, this film is loosely based on true events. Harry Powers was a murderer who killed several widows and their children in the early 1930’s, finding the lonely women after putting up personal ads in the newspapers. And this case helped inspire author Davis Grubb, who wrote an incredibly dark novel about a self-proclaimed preacher attempting to kill a widow and her children to steal money they unwittingly have. And this novel caught the attention of actor Charles Laughton. Laughton had had a pretty impressive career, both on the silver screen and on stage, and after a while he began setting his sights on directing. At first this took the form of directing plays, but eventually he decided to try his hand at directing a film. And, his first and only film ended up being the Night of the Hunter. Laughton set out to create an incredibly dark film that leaned heavily into the style of German Expressionist horror, all while telling a pitch-black Southern Gothic tale of good vs evil. It was a lofty goal, and required Laughton and company to build some massive sets, rather than film on-location in Appalachia. And, unfortunately, the film wasn’t a big success when it came out. Both critics and average movie-goers hated the film, put off by it’s incredibly bleak and depressing subject matter, and generally being considered too weird to be accepted. Whether it was because of the scathing review or not, Laughton never made another film, leaving the Night of the Hunter as a strange note in his career, his one film that probably would have been largely forgotten if it hadn’t had a serious reappraisal later in the century. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the finest film noirs America ever produced, and one of the most fascinating films of the 1950’s.
The film takes place in the Great Depression of the 1930’s in West Virginia, and begins in a small town with a man racing home to his family after having robbed a bank. His name is Ben Harper, and he quickly realizes that the police are on his tail and he’s going to have to stash the money before they get there. He decides he can’t trust his wife, so he goes to his young son John and his daughter Pearl and tells them where he’s stashing the money, making John promise that he’ll take care of the family. The police then arrive and arrest Ben in front of John, scarring him. Ben ends up getting sentenced to death, because he killed two people in the robbery, and is sent to prison before the execution can take place. And, while in prison, he meets a shadowy man called Harry Powell who claims to be a preacher and who is in prison for stealing a car, despite the fact that he’s actually a pretty prolific serial killer. They just didn’t connect him to the killing. Powell ends up finding out about the stashed money, primarily because Ben talks in his sleep, and slowly starts to piece together that Ben’s kids know the secret whereabouts of the money he stole. Ben is then executed by the state, and Powell is released after serving his time for the car thefts. Powell then heads out to the small town that Harper lived in.
Powell starts passing himself off as a man of god, claiming that he was a chaplain at the prison and has decided to recently quit the job and travel the country, spreading the word of God. But, before he does this, he claims that he made a promise to Ben Harper to come visit his family and tell them he repented before he died. Powell is clearly a bullshit artist, and he quickly impresses the members of the small town, especially Willa Harper’s employer Icey Spoon. She starts pressing Willa to marry this strange man so that John and Pearl will have a father, and this seems to be Powell’s plan. John is incredibly suspicious of the man, but no one listens to him, and Powell and Willa end up getting married incredibly quickly. And, once he’s married, Powell starts tormenting Willa. He convinces her she’s a horrible sinner who deserves her fate and eventually begins looking for the hidden money. Willa discovers Powell’s true motives, and the two get in a fight that ends with Powell murdering Willa and dumping her body in the river, claiming that she’s run out on him and the children. John realizes what’s really going on though, and after coming to terms with the fact that none of the adults around him are going to save his sister and him from this murderer, he decides they need to run away.
John’s initial idea is to get help from an eccentric old sailor named Birdie who lives on the river, and who was friends with Bill Harper. But, it turns out that Birdie has discovered Willa’s body, and fearing that people will blame the murder on him, he’s become a complete drunk. So, John and Pearl hop onto a small row boat and escape the wrathful Powell. They sail down the river all night, and end up washing up on a shore the next morning where they’re found by an older woman named Rachel Cooper. Rachel raises orphaned children and immediately realizes that John and Pearl are in need to help, and welcomes them into her flock. She raises the kids, teaching them a lot about the Bible, and has them help her pick fruit that she sells in the city. Their life seems pretty decent for a while, but eventually Powell finds them. he tracks the boat down, and ends up coming across Cooper and the children, intimating that he has no problem killing all of them to get the money from them. But Cooper won’t give the children up, and ends up fortifying her home, keeping an eye on Powell all night long with a shotgun. And, after he attempts to attack her in the middle of the night, Rachel shoots Powell, injuring him and keeping him subdued until the police can come and arrest him, which is when we see that the money has been inside Pearl’s doll the entire time. Powell is then brought before the law, and his whole history is exposed. He’s sentenced to death, and Rachel manages to get John and Pearl out of the town shortly before a lynch mob comes to murder Powell, letting them lead a new life together where they can actually be happy.
The Night of the Hunter is not a particularly uplifting film. It’s basic premise, a serial killer stalks a couple of children so he can kill them and take their money, is pretty rough, especially for the 1950’s. Which makes you understand why this movie was so unpopular when it was released. Because, on top of being a pitch-black story, it’s also just incredibly odd. We follow John and Pearl for most of the film, it’s full of haunting Expressionist lighting and and awkwardly artificial set design, it gets quite a bit of horror and dread out of simple religious hymns, and is just generally upsetting. It still falls in line with the bizarre edicts of the Hayes Code, where crimes are punished with death, but it wallows in the horror of crime in a way I never really see from movies of this era. Noir films and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock tackled crime in this era, but rarely in a way that was this all-consuming. It’s one of the most tense films I’ve ever seen, full of long takes and moments of legitimate dread. Robert Mitchum is spectacular in the film as Harry Powell, one of the most frightening villains the silver screen has ever seen. He’s able to come across as a slimy preacher, while sliding straight into homicidal maniac. And, surprisingly, I think that young actor Billy Chapin gives a performance that’s able to stand up with Mitchum’s. John is a very well-crafted character, and Laughton was able to make Powell that much more frightening by putting us in John’s shoes, letting us feel how terrifying it is to be a child, unable to convince anyone that the things that are going on make no sense.
And all because Powell claims that he’s a man of God. Harry Powell is an incredibly upsetting character, primarily because he’s figured out a bizarre cheat to make it in America. Just claim it’s all in God’s name. It’s never made clear if Powell is actually a reverend, or if he’s just a con-artist who has found the best way to trick simple rubes, but it’s hard to argue with his results. He justifies everything he does, including all the murder, by saying that it’s God’s will. He implants himself in the small town, and eventually the Harper family, by just claiming that he’s a holy man. It gives him instant cache, an amount of respectability that lets him take advantage of people. Because Americans has been taught that if someone’s a good honest Christian, there’s surely nothing untoward about them. He’s found a cheat code for American society that lets him be a monster and get away with it. Because no one is going to suspect the preacher of crimes. It all comes crashing down around him, with a town full of people happily preparing to lynch him, but it worked for a staggering amount of time. And it’s kind of incredibly that Laughton was able to get a plot like this approved. Especially in the 1950’s, a time period where America was convinced that their Christianity was one of the deciding factors in the Cold War, a time where we were actively letting crimes pass under the radar if they were masked in Christianity and religion in general. Harry Powell isn’t an anomaly, he’s just one of many who figured out how to game the system.
The Night of the Hunter was written by James Agee, directed by Charles Laughton, and released by United Artists, 1955.
Categories: Cinematic Century