The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s surreal thriller ruins and then redeems a favorite hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Taking standard thriller tropes of hypocritical clergy, hidden cash, and endangered children, Laughton’s brilliant film stirs them in an alchemy of visual and auditory expression and pours out a masterpiece.
Robert Mitchum chills as Preacher Harry Powell, who’s got his own brand of religion, namely, serial killing, and Lillian Gish entrances as Rachel Cooper, whose brand of religion haunts the story with a fierce love. But it’s Harry Chapin as young John Harper who anchors this story with a fierce intensity and fervent grace.
Laughton’s tale, based on the book by Davis Grubb, concerns a violent and disturbed con man, Harry Powell, who, posing as a preacher, preys on widows and orphans. Encountering bank robber Ben Harper in prison, he learns of a $10,000 sum hidden by the man’s family. When he’s released, Powell heads to a West Virginia river town to seek this fortune. He easily ingratiates himself to the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and the far too credulous townsfolk.
But young John, wise to this wolf in sheep’s clothing, stands firm to the promises he’d made his father—to protect his sister and to never share his secrets. When Powell threatens Pearl, and their mother suspiciously disappears, John takes his sister and flees.
What follows is among the most dream-like and delightful sequences I have seen—not so much for the technical aspects of it, but for the lyrical nature of the children’s desperate journey downriver. The river escape sings, so perfect for a film infused with music. Laughton brings a keen eye and sensitive heart to his John, Pearl, and Mrs. Cooper and in them explores themes of true and child-like faith and the resilience of the human spirit. Likewise for Laughton, and embodied with serpent-like malevolence by Mitchum, evil is manifest, and its consequences are lasting. But it does not, and cannot, win in the face of real and powerful love.