Friday, October 30, 2009
Dream, little one dream/Dream my little one dream
Oh the hunter in the night/ fills your childish heart with fright
Fear is only a dream/ So dream little one, dream
The Night of the Hunter is a rather blatant tale of good vs evil.
Much of it is filmed as if a child's dream. A new viewer to this film might see aspects of other films that have come since. I surmise it is one of the most effective horror films ever made.
“It's really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale we are telling,” Charles Laughton.
Acclaimed actor, Charles Laughton, directed The Night of the Hunter. A film that was not a hit, either commercially or critically upon its release in 1955. Discouraged, Laughton never would direct another film. Today, The Night of the Hunter is considered one of the great American films.
"Beware of false prophets....... which come to you in sheep's clothing ...
... but inwardly, they are ravening wolves."
This is said by Lillian Gish at the opening of the film. She appears in the night's sky as if an angel. She is reading Bible passages to children.
Then we look down upon earth and witness children playing hide and seek. The innocent scene is disrupted by the discovery of a dead woman by one of the children.
It is then that we meet Harry Powell.
We see Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) driving down a country road. He is dressed in a sharp suit, hat and string tie. And he is talking to God.
Harry: "What's it to be, Lord, another widow? Has it
been six? Twelve? ... I disremember. You say the word, and I'm on my way.
You always send me money to go forth and preach
your Word. A widow with a little wad of bills
hidden away in the sugar-bowl.
I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really
Not that you mind the killin's..."
The stones of a country graveyard shine in the last daylight.
Harry: "Yore Book is full of killin's.
But there are things you do hate, Lord:
perfume-smellin' things -- lacy things --
things with curly hair --"
Powell struggles with his desires for women (he is probably impotent) but sees no problem with violence.
Mitchum's Powell is one of the best villians in film history. Well liked by most upon first meeting, his violent preacher contradiction is literally written on his hands. Some see him for who he is, most fall for the act.
We first see Ben Harper (Peter Graves) as he is running away from the police and drives up to his front yard. His two children, John and Pearl are playing in the yard and act excited to meet him until it becomes obvious something is wrong. We will find he has killed two people in a robbery gone wrong and still has the money with him. He quickly hides the money and then makes a covenant with his two young children.
Ben: "Listen to me, son. You got to swear. Swear means promise. First swear you'll take care of little Pearl. Guard her with your life, boy. Then swear you won't never tell where that money's hid. Not even your Mom."
This becomes a promise that Ben could not have forseen how difficult it would have been to keep. Especially on his son, John.Harry Powell is arrested for stealing a car and ends up the cell mate of Ben Harper's. Powell quickly realized what an odd man he is bunking with.
Ben: "What religion you profess, preacher?"
Harry: "The religion the almighty and me worked out betwixt us."
Harry is convinced Ben's children know where the money is hid. Harry gets out of jail soon after Ben is hanged for his crimes.
Harry finds the Harper family and tells them and their friends he worked at the jail and befriended Ben. Everyone believes and likes this strange man. Everyone but the young son, John.
Feeling she needs a father to her children, Ben's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) quickly marries Harry. Pearl tells her brother John she loves their new father and wants to tell the secret of where the money is hidden. But John will not give in, despite Harry asking about the money every moment Willa is not around.
And soon Willa will be dead. In her bedroom, shot to resemble a church, she is murdered by Harry Powell. And in her death she feels she is being saved. Being made "clean."
Willa: "He made you marry me, so's you could show me the Way and the Life and the Salvation of my soul! Ain't that so, Harry?"
Leaving John and Pearl orphans. Orphans who then go on the run to escape their evil step-father. Like No Country For Old Men's, Anton Chigurgh, Harry Powell is pure evil. We see no redeeming value in him. Which makes him all the scarier when people, usually females, believe him to be good. But Powell is no man of God; though it seems he might just be a demon. John and Pearl stay only moments ahead of their pursuer. Travelling along the river by way of a rowboat. One night they sleep in the hayloft of a barn. John wakes in the night to the sound of Harry riding nearby on a horse, singing the hymn, "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms."
John: "Dont he never sleep?"
The children escape back in the boat. By morning they are awakened on shore by the old woman we saw in the very first moments of the film, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).
The contrast between Cooper and Powell is obvious from the start. She is legit. She has three other children she has taken in and cared for and takes in John and Pearl without thinking.
Soon Harry Powell shows up at the house and asks for John and Pearl. Thinking he could be their father, Rachel fetches them. But she soon sees Powell for the wolf in sheeps clothing.
John: "He aint my dad."
Rachel: "No, and he aint no preacher neither."
Knife out, Powell goes for John, who crawls under the porch. Rachel then scares Powell away with a shotgun pressed against his back. Harry Powell leaves, but promises to be back at night.
This all sets up one of those beautiful scenes that you never want to forget. Rachel, sitting in a rocking chair, is framed like Whistler's Mother. Only difference is she is holding a shotgun.
We see Harry Powell through the window, sitting in the front yard. He begins singing his favorite hymn once again, but this time it becomes a duet. Rachel joins in. In a sense she is reclaiming this praise to God. It is a stark contrast of "good vs evil," "christ vs antichrist."
"It's a hard world for little things."
The last line of the film is Rachel Cooper looking into the camera and saying (about children) "they abide and they endure."
It is a necessary ending for what has come before. These children have been through much and survived; won even.
But the more powerful scene is the arrest of Harry Powell a couple of minutes before.
The cops arrest Harry Powell in an almost identical scene to Ben Harper's arrest at the beginning of the film. And in spite of John's feelings for Powell, the memory of his father's arrest floods back.
He runs to Powell and throws the money on him. Begging him to take it.
John: (crying) "Here. Here. Take it back dad. I don't want it dad. Its too much. I dont want it. Here."
The Night of the Hunter is a feminist film in the end. Particularly, the redemption of the biblical character, Eve.
Until Rachel comes along in the last act of the film, how good at making smart decisions are the women in the film? Willa quickly marries Harry Powell. Her friend, Icey, telling her she needs a man to raise her children.
Willa is obsessed about feeling "clean" from her sins.
After being told Ben Harper got rid of the money, she exclaims, "I feel clean now. My whole body's just a-quivering with cleanliness."
When Ben Harper made his son John, swear to keep the money, he did not trust Willa to know.
"Swear you won't never tell where the money's hid. Not even your mom...You've got common sense, she ain't."
Pearl wants to tell Harry Powell their secret.
Pearl: "I love Mr. Powell lots and lots, John."
Even after they have been running away. When Powell finally catches them, Pearl walks right to him. The age of Pearl makes this somewhat understandable. More difficult is teenager Ruby, one of the orphans under Rachel's care. After just a brief encounter with Powell, Ruby also becomes infatuated. To the point that even when he is arrested for murder, she utters a perplexing statement.
Ruby: "I love him. You think he's like them others."
Rachel is not just the opposite side of the coin of Powell, but also of Willa and the other women in the film.
But Rachel does not just vindicate Eve; John does as well in a subtle way.
His christmas gift to her is the only one that is different. "Oh, another pot holder."
He gives her an apple. And reverses the gender order.