For a cold-blooded film noir with traces of gothic horror, The Night of the Hunter has always impressed me as, among other things, a vessel for Christian truths. There aren’t many Hollywood films, past or present, that speak to my faith in such a convincing way. This may come as a surprise to anyone for whom the dominant image of the film is of a self-proclaimed preacher who profanes the true faith with his wickedness. Movies have always faced the charge of distorting Christianity, pretending its practitioners are all hucksters and hypocrites. At first glance, this film is as guilty of the caricature as any other, except that the opening narration quotes the Sermon on the Mount regarding false prophets. The intention isn’t to discredit Christianity but to expose some of that good old down-home American poison: rudderless religiosity and the quest for treasure. Not only does the film depict the devil citing Scripture for his purpose, but it takes another step to show Scripture as the foundation of a righteous life.
That first part is important, though. To those of us who are familiar with the history of religion in America, Harry Powell is all too real. His message, summed up by his Manichean knuckle tattoos, smacks of the kind of judgmental partitioning that the unwary are always eager to adopt. Posing as an itinerant preacher, he finds willing audiences in small communities along the Ohio River. The unshepherded zeal of the region is a dangerous weapon, and he knows how to wield it to his own advantage. He has no real concern for the state of anyone’s soul, but finds a way to get a lot of money out of people who trust him. So much is par for the course for a cult founder or megachurch pastor. Harry Powell is also a Bluebeard serial killer, a man who hates women with uncommon ferocity and focus. As portrayed by Robert Mitchum with a kind of crazed swagger, he could very well be the devil incarnate.
Powell insinuates his way into the home of a family with a collective guilty conscience. While he was last in prison, Powell met a man who robbed a bank to feed his family. The man was later executed for the murder of two during the heist. His widow is burdened with the suspicion that her lack of contentment may have driven him to the act. His son carries an even greater psychic burden. Just before his arrest, the man asked the boy to promise not to tell anyone where the money was hidden. Keeping the promise made to a fallen idol becomes the boy John’s overriding concern. No mere stranger, not even one who claims to have ministered to his father on death row, can convince John to tell the secret. But his mother (essayed by Shelley Winters with fragile pathos) isn’t as strong as he. The community stresses that she can’t take care of two children on her own. And here comes a holy man who seems interested in helping.
With expressionistic fury, the film shows Harry Powell’s depredations. John first sees the fiend’s encroaching shadow on the wall of his bedroom, a phantasmal intruder. A foreboding mist settles around the house, light beams slashing through. Powell’s would-be victims are seen imprisoned beneath ruthless triangles of light. This contrast of light and darkness would seem to fit in with Powell’s sermon on love and hate, good and evil, but his perversion of the truth sets the stage for the entrance of a real Light in the second half of the film. John and his little sister Pearl manage to escape by climbing into a boat and floating downriver. The canopy of stars above their heads is the first appearance of nonthreatening light in the film. They float past the spider’s web, but, climbing into a barn to sleep, John spots the pitch black silhouette of a horseman in the distance: their pursuer.
The children had to leave their own community to find someone who would take their side against Harry Powell. By the grace of God, they happen upon such a person, one Rachel Cooper, a caretaker of local orphans. If Mitchum represents the sultry angst of noir, then Lillian Gish as Cooper supplies the link to the silent era, the film’s true antecedent. Toughened through Griffith-inflicted suffering, Gish in her middle age is able to convey a backbone of steel. Rachel Cooper professes a belief in the Bible, too, and she is able to judge the false prophet by his fruit. It all comes to a head during a tense vigil. Seated on a trunk outside the Cooper home, Powell starts singing his theme song, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Delivered by Mitchum throughout the film in a kind of campfire-ghost-story warble, it’s a creepy travesty of hymn singing. But then Cooper, silhouetted in a rocking chair in the foreground, makes it a duet. The strong conviction of her voice immediately redeems the song and challenges Powell’s distortion of it. It’s one of the most extraordinary moments in all of film.
While so much rhetoric about religion hangs on who’s right and who’s wrong (which isn’t always a bad thing), I’m overjoyed to find at least one film that grapples with the meaning of James 1:27. That verse pegs Rachel Cooper as a true believer and Harry Powell as the exact opposite. Praiseworthy devotion is measured by one’s willingness to defend “the least of these.” Even in the absence of that specific application, the movie would be notable for showing that Powell’s way is the wrong way and that, by inference, a right way exists. There are many other reasons to love The Night of the Hunter. Director Charles Laughton, screenwriter James Agee, cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and editor Robert Golden crafted a marvelously macabre piece of work, jarring in its flashes of ugliness but otherwise stunningly beautiful. It wouldn’t be fair to claim that the filmmakers had an explicitly Christian parable on their minds. It might even be more interesting to explore what the movie says about America specifically (the Great Depression, the McCarthy era, the South) than what it says about faith in general. Many have taken that route, and rightly so. But there’s something deeply fascinating about a movie that so boldly explores the nature of good and evil.