Life and Death in L.A.: One Revealing Moment: Something that Happens in “The Night of the Hunter” Made Me Rethink My First Impression of the Film and See It in an Entirely New Light

Monday, March 11, 2024

One Revealing Moment: Something that Happens in “The Night of the Hunter” Made Me Rethink My First Impression of the Film and See It in an Entirely New Light

Robert Mitchum, "The Night of the Hunter" (1955).

By Paul Parcellin

I first saw “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) around 20 or so years ago and walked away impressed but not particularly in love with the movie, and having said that I know what many of you are thinking: Heresy! 

I have no real excuse for my initial reaction. I’ll blame it on a lack of sleep, fatigue after sitting through too many double features in a row, or some other convenient but less than honest alibi. 


Sometimes the point of a film, that is, the thing that distinguishes it from others, can fly right past you. At least in my case it did. But, I’m glad that I recently rewatched it because I’d missed one salient point. Perhaps that is the reason why the popularity of this Charles Laughton directed drama, the only film he ever helmed, which has been an audience and critics’ favorite for decades, puzzled me a bit.

The story goes like this:

Itinerant preacher and psychopath Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) scours the American countryside during the Great Depression, preaching the word of the Lord as he searches for rich widows to romance, marry and bump off, after which he absconds with their dough. To say the least, Harry’s theological credentials are questionable. He’s the picture of evil, and if that isn’t obvious enough he has the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of both hands. 

Sally Jane Bruce, Billy Chapin,
Shelley Winters, Robert Mitchum.
Before long he finds Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), widow of Ben Harper, who was executed for a couple of murders he committed during a bank robbery. Harry was Ben’s prison cellmate, and the evil preacher suspects that Ben stashed a pile of the loot from the robbery in his homestead. Once he locates his prey, Harry expertly worms his way into the Harper family, which includes 9-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 4-year old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). 

A supreme conman, Harry earns Willa’s trust and dazzles her friends and neighbors with dramatic sermons. A look of serene satisfaction washes over the townsfolk’s faces whenever Harry waxes poetic about the struggle of good over evil. While his LOVE/HATE tattoos ought to be ample warning that something’s rotten in Denmark, a gaggle of believers, including Willa, remains deeply under his spell.

Before long, young John finds himself in the increasingly treacherous position of resisting his gullible mother, who marries the evil man and wants John to embrace Harry as his stepdad. The youngster already has Harry’s number, and tries to make his mother see the truth, but she’s smitten and unable to accept the obvious. It seems that nearly every adults in town has fallen down on the job of protecting the little ones.

Another Serial Killer Comes to Mind

Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten,
"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943).
“The Night of the Hunter”’s plot resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), in which Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a mentally disturbed rake who hides from the law with his sister and her family, and has a habit of knocking off rich widows for profit. But Hitchcock’s film is anchored in a more natural and realistic view of small town American than is Laughton’s. “The Night of the Hunter” has a surreal edge that at times makes it seem like a storybook legend of horrific proportions come to life. 

Unlike Cotten’s seething but restrained Uncle Charlie, Mitchum’s bad guy is a thundering force of nature whose mere presence can charm an entire community whilst putting the lives of the vulnerable in danger. Like most villains, Harry is the hero of his own story and is only doing the Lord’s work, he reasons. He talks to God, seeking direction, and the Almighty furnishes the phony preacher with victims to murder and rob so that Harry can continue to spread the good word. Or at least that’s what Harry believes. 

So, is Harry delusional and psychotic or crystal clear about the ethics of his deeds and purely remorseless? Hard to say, exactly, but most likely it’s a bit of each of the above. But there’s no doubt that he’s a monster and what is most disturbing is that no one is suspicious of him when they ought to be — no one except John, that is, who seems to have inherited all of the common sense in his family. 

Mitchum, glowering at the Burlesque show.
Early on, we see the psychological conflicts behind Harry’s anti-social behavior. When we first meet him he’s tooling around in stolen car. The cops eventually catch up with him and haul him out of a burlesque show where he’s been seething and glowering at a dancer. It’s distinctly possible that the highly repressed preacher is window shopping for victim on whom he could murderously vent his psycho-sexual rage. Later, on his and Willa’s wedding night, she nervously prepares for her first erotic encounter with her new spouse, but Harry is enraged and disgusted by her conjugal expectations. Clearly, Willa is not in for a memorable honeymoon.

So, What’s the Problem?

From the above plot summary you’d rightly conclude that this film has a lot of the elements that a noir ought to have, and you may be wondering why I hadn’t revisited it over the years.

As I relate this to you I can almost hear the crowd gathering on my doorstep, pitchforks, torchlights and axes in hand, so I’ll have to make this somewhat brief. This isn’t going to be a hatchet job, so please lay down your weapons for a moment as I make my case.

Part of the reason why I allowed this film to lie dormant in my memory for so long might be because it’s just plain hard to pin down exactly what kind of movie it is. Depending on who you talk to you might call it a noir, which I do, but it skirts other genres and styles, too. 

For instance:

An escape on the river.
If you think of it as a noir, you’ll probably notice that it tends to wander into unfamiliar territory from time to time. The young ones flee Harry’s murderous wrath, narrowly escaping on a skiff that carries them downstream on the river Huckleberry Finn style, and the film begins to feel more Mark Twain than James M. Cain.

At other times we get a distinctly western vibe, in part because of its rural setting, but especially when Harry takes to horseback in pursuit of the runaway children. 

To add yet another flavor to the stew, you might call it a monster movie and that wouldn’t be too far off base, either, although nothing supernatural occurs and it has not a hint of science fiction. But Harry Powell is clearly a demon and a serial killer in clerical garb who wants money and is willing to murder women and children to get it. 

Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce.
Also muddying the noir waters are those carefully arranged visual motifs that crop up every now and then. Even the dark, forbidding basement, with the staircase and doorway looming above the kids as they hide from Harry, is an artfully framed composition that is at once terrifying and strangely aesthetically pleasing. Almost each scene begins with a well composed, meticulously framed shot, like photographs in a picture book that come to life. Shots of the crescent moon, jackrabbits and an owl are incorporated into the nighttime scenes on the river. We see the kids on their skiff shot through a spiderweb in the foreground —  a metaphor that makes us wonder if they will be caught in Harry’s web? 

As the youths journey downriver, heavy (maybe heavy handed) symbolism continues. They pass a flock of sheep and we think of sacrificial lambs — Harry liked to call the kids “little lambs,” a creepy smokescreen that fooled everyone except John. 

Safe at Last?

Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Castillo,
Harry waits to pounce.
They finally drift into the sheltering arms of kindly Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), who has turned her home into a refuge for orphans and we’re allowed to breathe a momentary sigh of relief. Echoing John and Pearl’s dramatic trip downriver, more symbolism is in store at Miss Cooper’s nightly Bible reading, which happens to include the parable of Moses and the bulrushes; the infant Moses, floating downstream, is rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, a story that is all too familiar to the two youngsters.

I must admit that part of my problem with these thoughtfully composed sequence was that I didn’t get the B-movie charge I’d associated with noir. That’s not to say I didn’t care for films from the major studios, but I was, and still am, hooked on the slapdash craftsmanship that went into low budget Poverty Row B-movie, such as “Detour.” To me, their kind of ragged, shot on the fly aesthetic has an unselfconscious energy that’s hard to replicate.

Confronted with “The Night of the Hunter,” a strangely allegorical film, I had trouble accepting it as a noir. It’s full of dark shadows, thundering locomotives and murder; all the stuff that sounds like noir. But how could it be noir? It doesn’t take place in the present day, nor is it set in the city. Needless to say, my short-sighted views have since been revised.

Most significant of all was that “revealing moment” in “The Night of the Hunter” that caused me to rethink my opinion of the film. It’s one of the story's most important scenes: Harry’s arrest. 

It passes rather quickly so it’s easy to miss its significance — especially if you’re not particularly alert at the time. In it, John witnesses the lawmen’s takedown of Harry. As the police wrestle him to the ground and snap on the cuffs, John is nearly moved to tears, pleading with the cops to take it easy on Harry. 

John and Pearl's father, Ben (Peter Graves),
is taken into custody.
That scene is a replay of the one we see in the beginning of the film in which John witnesses his father, Ben, being roughly taken into custody. It’s a dramatic flashback for the young boy, who had remained stoic as he and his sister traveled through hell before arriving at this concluding scene, and it opens a floodgate of emotion in him. The whole experience may have cost him his innocence, but John has not forfeited his humanity. He still regards Harry as a human being even though the murderous thug killed his mother and was inches away from slaying him and his sister.

Because John was dragged through the virtual fires of Hades and survived, and was not tarnished or jaded from the experience, he is one of the film’s heroes. The other is Miss Cooper, who, with her trusty rifle saves the day. 

Another thought I had after seeing the film again:

In the end, it took a perceptive 9-year-old boy to see through a charlatan’s facade while most of the adults were hoodwinked by a conman who exploited their religious fervor. 

John's clarity of vision is something we could well use more of today.  


  1. I discovered "The Night of the Hunter" first as a book, excerpted in the Readers Digest Condensed book I found on a shelf in our basement as a young teen. I didn't realize at the time that it had been made into a movie, but when years later I caught it on TV, I was thrilled! Later I found the original novel in the full edition, and it is also a great story. It is worth trying to find and read.

  2. I've always admired this film. A bit nourish I suppose - with a large dose of noir's predecessor- German expressionism.

  3. The Night of the Hunter is a Grimm brothers fairy tale.

  4. Excellent movie! One of the classics!

  5. I loved this post, Paul -- your insights and commentary were first-rate, and revealed several points that I'd never considered before. Like you, I'd seen Night of the Hunter only once, long ago, and while I thought it was good, I wasn't overly fond of it, and might not have seen it again if it hadn't been a film covered by my weekly Zoom meetup group. (The main thing I remembered from it, outside of the whole LOVE-HATE thing, was the sight of Shelley Winters in the car, and that was enough to make me avoid the movie like the plague.) When I saw it again recently, I was quite simply blown away, and it instantly became one of my favorite noirs (or whatever it is). Thank you for such an enjoyable read!

    -- Karen

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Karen. It seems we both had the same reaction. I developed a great appreciation for Charles Laughton’s directorial skill after a second viewing of the film. And yes, the underwater shot of Shelly Winters is still disturbing, even when you know it’s coming. What a film!

  6. good write up although I am not sure I understand your conclusion? I recently saw a movie and had a similar experience where I appreciated it but didn't love it. Certainly as a first time directorial effort it's pretty amazing, but is it noir? I don't think so. You point to John not forfeiting his humanity and being a hero for it. And the heroism they ultimately find in Ns. Cooper. To me, these firmly replaced this as an allegorical film not a noir. There is no nihilism to it, it actually has something of a happy ending. IMHO a key component of noir is the post-war nihilism and doomed quality if the characters-- it's not simply the play if light and shadow and a few post-expressionist flourishes.

    I did take the time to listen to the audio commentaries and will certainly revisit this movie. But at least after viewing it twice it doesn't sit in my pantheon of "great noir" but the jury is still out 😉