Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Writer: James Agee
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
Studio: United Artists
Why I DVRed It: This is quite honestly one of my favorite movies, so I see it whenever I have the opportunity. The last time I saw it was at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn in December of 2013. At that presentation, the photographer Bruce Weber spoke about the documentary he was making about Robert Mitchum, so it felt like even more of an event. Watching the film on the big screen (and with some food and alcohol in front of me) was a significantly better experience than I knew watching it on my television in (due to my work schedule) two increments would be. But, still. I had to DVR it when I saw it on the TCM schedule.
Presentation on TCM: For once, I actually captured a movie that was properly presented on TCM! Before the movie aired, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Jan-Christopher Horak, the Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archives. While I was thrilled to finally (FINALLY!) DVR a film with an introduction, I have to say, this introduction was pretty dull. Horak talked about The Night of the Hunter being on the cusp of the classical Hollywood and modern film era. Mankiewicz agreed, then both Mankiewicz and Horak lamented that the film has largely survived as merely a cult classic, because, if it had been an instant classic, the director, Charles Laughton, might’ve directed other films. But both agreed that Mitchum and Gish’s performances alone make the film one worth preserving. Get all that?
This conversation largely added nothing to my viewing of the film, as the two basically said the same stuff anyone who’s seen The Night of the Hunter would say. Of slightly more interest was Horak’s discussion of the archiving and restoration process, but even that was pretty dull.
After the movie, they talked again about Lillian Gish (who Horak met once), the restoration work done at the Eastman House, and the communications UCLA has with other archivists (they all like to make sure, for instance, that they are not preserving redundant films). So, all in all, this interview portion was not that helpful and could’ve been fast forwarded, even though that meant I would not have been able to gaze at Horak’s impressive socks…
Synopsis: In Depression-Era West Virginia, the maniacal Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) torments two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in hopes of getting $10,000 stolen by their late father. The children escape after Harry kills their mother (Winters), and the Ohio River takes them to the home of Rachel Cooper (Gish). Harry follows. A showdown ensues.
Analysis (contains spoilers): This is one of the great all-time films, and it is so rich with imagery and themes that I am actually a bit overwhelmed with what to say about it. After all, most of the truly brilliant film historians and analysts have already discussed so much about it that it seems virtually impossible to not merely echo them. Making matters worse, the TCM presenters already touched on so many good talking points (the wishes that Laughlin would direct another movie, the amazing performances from Gish and Mitchum, the film encapsulating the best of the classical period as well as anticipating elements of later cinema). All of these are points I largely agree with, but, to the “acting” thoughts, I would add that Shelley Winters is just terrific in this film—she does such a good job of playing the woman no one wants to marry in this film, A Place in the Sun, and Lolita. I can’t help but wonder about the psychic scars she must have from being forever typecast as the frumpy victim, but I have to admit she was so wonderfully adept at playing that role. In this film, her role is even more interesting. Her character, Willa Harper, is a woman wronged twice over and a woman smart enough to see what’s coming but seemingly powerless against preventing it. She is a woman who knows enough to be suspicious but who is not confident enough to convince herself that her suspicions are justified. Winters gives so many great faces in the film and seems to have so many moments of anagnorisis about Harry, but they are always too late. She realizes her marriage to Harry will not be a loving one the night of her wedding when he won’t sleep with her, when it is too late to not be married. She realizes the children are right to not like Harry only after it is too late to have Harry not be their surrogate father. And, of course she realizes that Harry is only after the money just in time for him to murder her and throw her into her hauntingly ethereal watery grave.
That image is, of course, one of the great images of the film, but this time watching it, I was especially taken with an earlier group of images involving Willa, ones that quite successfully foreshadow her tragic fate. There’s a great sequence after Harry is released from prison. Willa is at work at the diner when the owners tell her she needs a man. She says she does not, and Laughton edits in images of a black train. Willa again says she does not want a man, and the train moves closer. Then we see Harry. The long black train is bringing her death, but she is fated to meet the train and Harry Powell, Willa’s personal Thanatos.
Later, on her wedding night, Willa’s sexual advances are rejected by Harry. She turns to sleep alone and places her arms over her chest, like the arms of a corpse in a coffin. She is a woman who wants to forego marriage after her first husband wrongs her by stealing $10,000, and she is a woman who largely knows to avoid the temptations of Harry Powell. She can see she does not need a man, and yet she ends up marrying him and believing herself to be a sinner. After all, if a preacher tells her she’s a sinner, then she must be one, right? That, of course, leads into one of the major themes of the movie: who speaketh for God in a world gone wrong?
The film opens with pictures of the stars and Rachel’s face preaching a true sermon to the children she has taken in. She warns them of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, obviously foreshadowing Harry, a bluebeard who claims to speak to and for God. The children are lost souls—we learn later that the Depression has made orphaned children a common problem—but Rachel (named presumably for the child-less wife of Jacob in the Bible) has taken them in and given them moral direction.
Others may be taken in by a fast-talking charlatan, but Rachel can see through him, for she alone knows the true purpose of religion the film evokes: community, love, guidance, not selfishness. Harry wishes and claims to speak directly to God, but Rachel is a student of the Bible. She knows she does not know everything but claims to only be certain that she “good for something in this world” because she is a “strong tree with branches for many birds.” For Rachel, being able to follow the teachings of the Bible is enough. She compares John to Moses (because he came to her floating on the river) and speaks only what the Bible says. Harry, on the other hand, makes up his own sermons based on his love and hate tattoos. And, of course, rather than using God’s teachings to do right and raise up orphans, he uses it to control Willa and justify his killing of her. He misinterprets or outright makes up the voice of God.
Ultimately, the film takes a stance that is not so much anti-religion as it is anti the use of religion to justify misery. Religion, it seems, is meant to be a tool for good. I got choked up at the ending, in which John and Pearl have a real family with a real foundation. They celebrate Christmas, and Rachel even manages to buy John the watch he wanted, even though she is not rich. Money is ultimately trumped by faith and family, but John still gets the material possession he wanted!
The film is highly recommended. As I stated above, I can’t even begin to do it justice on this forum. The imagery is too incredible to be captured in stills (it makes use of expressionist techniques that make the whole film exist in this dreamy yet realistic fairy tale yet world), and there are too many sequences that need to be witnessed in context to have them make sense (such as the great sequence when Rachel pulls out her shotgun while Harry sings hymns). It’s simply a must-see.
Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, didn’t I make that clear? As I said, I always try to watch this film when I can, and I have no regrets about DVRing it. I highly highly highly recommend this film, and it appears even richer on repeated viewings.