Night of the Hunter (1955) **
For the most part, I’ve long since given up on the idea of ever making sense of normal people’s taste in movies. I’ve learned not to bother watching the Hollywood blockbusters, I’ve figured out that glowing critical recommendations mean I’m going to be bored to tears for a good two and a half hours (when do the critics ever like short, to-the-point movies?), and I’ve come to the general conclusion that, for my purposes, no commentator is to be trusted unless he or she genuinely liked Robot Monster. But every once in a while, even the voices of other weirdos will lead me so completely astray as to leave me scratching my head in wonderment. Case in point: Night of the Hunter. Night of the Hunter is one of those rare movies on which both the Mike Weldons and the Roger Eberts of the world are in agreement. Leonard Maltin and Stephen King both have lots of very nice things to say about it. I don’t know— maybe I missed something, but where just about everyone else seems to have seen a classic, I saw only pretentious mediocrity.
The pretentiousness begins immediately, with a sequence that prefigures Hitchcock’s most heavy-handed early-60’s excesses. An airborne camera slowly swoops down on a bucolic scene of children in what I take to be the American South of the 1930’s (it certainly looks like the South, but I can’t place any of the accents) playing hide-and-seek on the grounds of a rather large farmhouse. The game is interrupted before it can really begin, however, when one of the children finds the dead body of a woman— presumably their mother— on the stairs leading up out of the cellar. Next we see the Reverend Harry Powell (Cape Fear’s Robert Mitchum, who was equally creepy [if less overtly menacing] in Secret Ceremony) driving away down a rambling country road, talking to God about how the proper performance of his evangelical duties requires the murder of the occasional well-heeled young widow. Powell is apprehended by the police soon enough, and carted off to jail.
Immediately thereafter (the transition is really jarring, in a way that looks accidental and inept, rather than studied and deliberate), we meet another fugitive in a jalopy. This second man is Ben Harper (Peter Graves, from The Beginning of the End and Killers from Space), who currently has reason to question the sense of his earlier decision to knock over a bank in order to provide for his depression-ravaged family— the holdup evidently did not go well, and Ben was forced to shoot the guards. Harper has just enough time before the cops arrive at his house to leave the $10,000 he stole in the custody of his ten-year-old (or thereabouts) son, John (Tobor the Great’s Billy Chapin), and to swear the boy and his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), to secrecy regarding its hiding place. Then Harper, too, is arrested, and sentenced to hang by the same judge that presided over the trial of Harry Powell.
As fate would have it, Harper and Powell end up as cellmates, and once Powell realizes that Harper’s execution will leave his wife, Willa (Shelley Winters, from Bloody Mama and Who Slew Auntie Roo?), a widow with lots of money, the homicidal preacher starts talking to God again, thanking Him for setting up this provident meeting. Powell can’t get Harper to tell him what he did with the money, though, so when he escapes from prison not long after Ben’s execution, he has nothing to go on but the man’s last name and the name of the village where he said he lived.
That’s more than enough, as it turns out. Powell is a master schmoozer, and everyone knows everybody else in tiny country hamlets, so the evil preacher has only been in town for a couple of days before some cooperative soul introduces him to Willa Harper. The widow has been supporting her family by working at the soda fountain run by Walt Spoon (Don Beddoe, from The Man They Could Not Hang and Jack the Giant Killer) and his wife, Icey (Evelyn Varden, of The Bad Seed), and she still has no idea that the money her husband stole is hidden somewhere on her property. She’s also spent the months since Ben was arrested listening to a constant harangue from Icey Spoon to the effect that she needs to remarry at once, and with Powell now in town charming the pants off of everyone he meets, it’s only a matter of time before that harangue metamorphoses into one in favor of Willa’s remarriage to Powell specifically. There are two people who aren’t impressed with that Bible-thumping reptile, however: John Harper and his adult friend, Birdie Steptoe (James Gleason). Of course, the fact that one of these people is a pre-teen boy, while the other is a reclusive old drunk who lives in a shack on the riverbank, doesn’t bode well for their ability to persuade anyone else that Powell is trouble, and sure enough, Willa marries Powell after an almost indecently brief courtship.
You might think the woman would wise up on their honeymoon, when her efforts to consummate their marriage lead instead to a scary lecture on the evils of lust that looks like it could turn into a beating at any second, but instead, all Willa does is kneel down and pray to God for the moral strength to be the chaste and sinless wife that Powell wants. What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that Powell doesn’t really want her at all— what he wants is Ben Harper’s stolen money. To that end, Powell begins working on the children. Since Pearl likes him anyway, he takes the sweetness-and-light approach with her; the openly distrustful John gets the strong-arm treatment whenever his mother isn’t around to watch. But one can’t go on threatening children for long without their mother noticing, and Willa eventually figures out what ought to have been obvious from the very beginning. Unfortunately for Willa and her kids, however, she still hasn’t grasped the extent of Powell’s evil, and she ends up with her throat slit, tied down to the driver’s seat of her car at the bottom of the river. And by the time Birdie Steptoe accidentally discovers her body (he tells no one of his discovery out of a perhaps reasonable fear of becoming the number-one suspect in the woman’s murder), Powell has already turned the entire town against Willa by spreading the story that she ran off with some man because she wasn’t getting laid often enough.
All of which is really just a long way of saying that John and Pearl Harper are now completely screwed. Without Willa around to get in the way, Powell feels emboldened to take whatever steps may be necessary to make “his” kids talk. After a tense standoff in the cellar, and with John’s life obviously on the line, Pearl confesses that the money is hidden inside her doll. But while Powell’s attention is on opening the doll up, John turns the tables on him with a bit of weaponry improvised from some of the crap lying about in the basement, and is able to escape from the house with both Pearl and the doll. Powell gives chase, and follows them all the way to the river in what should have been allowed to stand as the film’s climax. However, a quick look at the clock will reveal that we’ve still got more than half an hour of movie left, and so rather than drowning as he struggles through the marshy ground at the river’s edge, Powell manages to claw his way to dry land, and goes back to town to gear up for a long downriver pursuit of the children and the money.
Powell catches up to them after a couple of weeks. John and Pearl have fallen in with a childless, middle-aged woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who has made a kind of career out of taking in orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children. Mrs. Cooper provides for the kids, and in turn, they work on her farm and help her sell its produce in the nearest town. What leads Powell to the Harper kids’ new family is an encounter with the oldest of Rachel’s charges, the teenaged Ruby (Gloria Castillo, from Teenage Monster and Invasion of the Saucer Men). Rachel thinks the girl goes for sewing lessons on Thursday evenings, but really, she just hangs around in town and flirts with boys. Well on the first Thursday after John and Pearl arrive at the Cooper farm, Ruby gets herself picked up by Powell, who takes her out for ice cream and pumps her for information about any children who may have wandered into town recently; his little son and daughter have run away from home, he says, and he’s spent many a day and night looking for them. And Ruby, naive girl that she is, not only confirms that John and Pearl are staying with Rachel Cooper, but arranges for Powell to stop by the next day to collect them. Rachel, however, is not so trusting, and she only has to talk to Powell for a couple of minutes before she catches him in a lie and sends him packing. When he returns late that night, Rachel is on the case again, defending the house with a pump-action shotgun. She wounds the murderous reverend when he tries to sneak in through the back door, and calls the cops for him the next morning. Again, you might think we’d come to the end of the movie, but again, you’d be wrong. We still have to get through a completely pointless scene in which a lynch mob assembles outside the jail where Powell is being held, forcing his transfer to another location, and then another, equally pointless one in which Cooper’s orphans joyfully open their Christmas presents. Then and only then does the blessed legend “The End” at last appear on the screen.
I’ll start with the good stuff. The first thing anybody mentions when talking about Night of the Hunter is Robert Mitchum’s performance as Harry Powell. He really is quite good, and the character is truly one of the 1950’s scarier movie psychopaths. Most commentators make a big deal of the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on the first joints of Powell’s fingers, but to me, that’s just a cheap shot, and is far less interesting and unnerving than the reverend’s twisted displays of religiosity. His habit of conversing with God whenever no one is around to hear him is extremely creepy, but those scenes that depict him actually preaching— especially the one in which he has Willa testify to her own struggle with sin and salvation at a one of his tent revivals— are the ones that really got to me. Next to this stuff, even the famous scene in which Birdie finds Willa’s submerged body (which is, in any event, compromised by its utter unbelievability— no body of water in North America is that clear) pales in comparison.
Mitchum, however, is too effective in his role for the movie’s own good. I find it impossible to believe that even the most sheltered country bumpkin could meet Harry Powell without instantly seeing that he’s an intensely evil, dangerously insane man. I know, I know— people were less sophisticated in the era in which this movie is set, it was perfectly acceptable in those days to do things like beat your wife and threaten your children with violence, and preachers especially could get away with almost any kind of sociopathic behavior. (I’ve got some relatives who could tell you a thing or two about that last part in particular.) But there’s a big difference between having a bad temper that leads you into cruelty, and the icy, Satanic calm which Powell maintains even while he slits Willa Harper’s throat. From the moment we first see him, it’s immediately obvious that some part of what most people would call the man’s soul is simply missing. Having nobody but John and Birdie pick up on it pushes Night of the Hunter perilously close to the territory of the Idiot Picture.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hundreds of Idiot Pictures, though, so there has to be some other explanation for my increasing exasperation as I watched this one. This is where that pretentious mediocrity I mentioned in the first paragraph comes into play. To begin with, Night of the Hunter is every bit as heavily padded as even the most bloated Larry Buchanan movie. This film could be edited down to a running time of perhaps 65 minutes without losing anything of dramatic importance. Any movie that can afford to lose nearly half an hour of footage has problems, any way you slice it. The effect is then intensified by the filmmakers’ refusal to end the picture at its logical stopping point not once, but twice. The first time it happens is an annoyance; the second time is simple sadism. Then there’s the singing. People in this movie sing constantly, and whenever they begin, the plot grinds to a halt until they’ve finished. Don’t misunderstand me, now— this isn’t a musical. There are no song-and-dance numbers, and the characters don’t sing plot-specifically to each other at regular intervals; apparently, singing is just what these folks do for fun. But the effect on the movie’s flow is exactly the same, and what’s more, these musical interludes are almost always positioned in such a way that they wreak havoc on the mood director Charles Laughton labors with such cloying earnestness to establish throughout the rest of the film. In fact, as I watched, I was frequently reminded of the old MGM horror flicks from the 30’s and 40’s. (Not surprising, perhaps, given that MGM would later buy United Artists, which produced Night of the Hunter.) In the same way that those films play like they were made by and for people who were fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of horror, Night of the Hunter seems to be a suspense film aimed expressly at an audience that was fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of suspense. How else to explain the utterly ridiculous lengths to which its creators went to convey to the audience that everybody— even bad old Harry Powell— is going to be okay after the camera stops paying attention to them? I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch movies about homicidal preachers because I want to be reassured, and every minute such a film spends trying to reassure me is a minute spent wasting its time.