Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
This movie is not what I expected. I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles. I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not. Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.
During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters). What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is. The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times. There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier. One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground. The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.
Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell. He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl. Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.
This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity. At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.
It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity. The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.