Film / The Night of the Hunter

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/1468679918_047_robert_mitchum_theredlist.jpg

Probably Robert Mitchum's best-known performance was in this extremely creepy suspense-horror film from 1955 (well, this and Cape Fear). This is the one where he has "Love" and "Hate" tattooed across his knuckles.

The setting is rural West Virginia during The Great Depression. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a preacher and psychopathic serial murderer who one day gets married to Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), a newly widowed mother of two. Willa's previous husband Ben (Peter Graves) has just been hanged for robbing a bank and killing two men in the process, and Powell — who'd learned about the robbery while in prison with Ben — is hoping to get his hands on the hidden money. And then it gets really messed-up. Lillian Gish, a huge star in the silent movie days who mostly did character roles after talkies came in, stars as Rachel, the Cool Old Lady who defends the children from Powell.

One of the all-time classics of American cinema, and Charles Laughton's sole film as a director. Also the inspiration for the Thirty Seconds to Mars song of the same name.


This film provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Pretty much everyone except Rachel, and even she admits she "lost her son's love" a long time ago.
    • Especially Willa, who doesn't lift a hand in her own defense when Harry kills her, despite knowing full well he's likely to kill her children next.
  • The Atoner: Rachel has stated that she "lost her son's love" a long time before the story started. She seems to be looking after the kids as a way to make up for her previous actions. All in all, this just demonstrates that she's a better person than most of the other adults in the film. She knows she did something wrong and now she's trying to make it right, and she doesn't deny her sins.
  • Bad Habits: Harry is a thief, con artist, and serial killer who poses as a priest and marries his executed cellmate's widow to get his hands on the man's hidden loot, but finds himself stymied by the dead man's young children.
  • Big Brother Instinct: John is very protective of Pearl.
  • The Bluebeard: Harry has an MO of marrying wealthy widows, then killing them and stealing their possessions. Lampshaded towards the end.
  • Brainwashed: Harry convinces Willa that she is a sinful woman and therefore deserves all the abuse he hurls at her.
  • Broken Pedestal: Say what you will about the stepfather, but the kids' real father is no saint either. And Uncle Birdie turns out to be utterly useless.
    • Powell becomes this to Pearl once he shows his true colors.
  • Call on Me: Uncle Birdie tells John this at one point, but when the time comes, he's passed out drunk.
  • Children Are Innocent: They abide, too.
  • Cool Old Lady: Rachel turns out to be quite the Mama Bear as she totes a shotgun to defend John and Pearl from Harry.
  • Con Man: Harry mostly acts as a preacher in order to charm and eventually defraud people.
  • Creepy Basement
  • Determinator: John will do anything to keep his father's secret.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Harry is a knife-welding "preacher" who radiates barely contained malice and anger, yet almost no one seems to notice.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The last few minutes take place during the Christmas season.
  • Draco in Leather Pants/Ron the Death Eater: An in-universe example. John refuses to see his dad as a criminal who's essentially fucked up his childhood and thinks of the police as "bad men." This supposedly changes when he finally breaks down towards the end.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: John and Pearl find a nurturing caregiver in Rachel and are accepted as a part of the household. John provides Rachel with a surrogate son who gives her a chance to atone for her bad relationship with her real son. Ruby is forgiven for her misdeeds. And Harry will get hanged for his crimes. But everyone goes through utter hell to get to those conclusions.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Implied with Ben Harper.
  • Fairy Tale Motifs
  • Fille Fatale: The teenaged Ruby falls madly in love with Harry. She is implied to have some serious psychological problems.
  • Film Noir: Due to its themes and extensive use of German Expressionism in its cinematography the film is often classified as such.
  • Flash Back Echo: Done more subtly than many recent cases. At the end of the film when Harry is being arrested, John's freak-out, begging them not to take him away, and throwing the money, echoes what he was feeling but didn't fully express when his father was being arrested at the beginning of the film.
  • The Great Depression
  • Grimmification: Notably the bible verses and children's songs used to eerie effect.
  • Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Just about the wickedest stepfather in anything ever, that's who!
  • Henpecked Husband: Walt Spoon, who notably has to endure his wife ignoring his presence to tell half the town about how she ignores him during sex.
  • Heroic Vow: John has sworn not to tell anyone where the stolen money is, and has to remind Pearl of this frequently. The finale reveals this is a pointed subversion: all John had to do all along was return the money to the police and Powell wouldn't have been a threat. Keeping the secret caused the deaths of at least two people, including John's mother.
    • Of course, the movie seems to be trying to point out just how shitty it was for John's father to put that burden on his young son in the first place.
  • Hypocrite: A town full of them, exemplified by Mrs. Spoon.
  • Implacable Man: Harry shows remarkable patience and endurance in tracking down John and Pearl, never pausing in his hunt, and even keeping on going at night.
    John: Don't he ever sleep?
    • He's also shot point blank by a surprised Rachel during the climax. He shrieks and flees, but is still alive the following morning. Though it is implied that she shot him with a rock salt shell.
  • Insistent Terminology: When put on court in the beginning of the film, Harry insists to be addressed as "Preacher Harry Powell". The judge retorts that in the eyes of the law he is just "Harry Powell, car thief", and he will be treated as such.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "There Once Was a Pretty Fly"
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The heavy-handed Mrs. Rachel Cooper.
  • Knife Nut: He doesn't like it when you touch it...
  • Knight Templar: Harry Powell...perhaps?
  • Knuckle Tattoos: Possibly the ur-example.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The local children taunt John and Pearl with a nasty singsong after their father is hanged. (Hing hang hung / Look what the hangman done...)
  • Large Ham: Harry Powell. "JOHN DOESN'T MATTER!"
  • Mama Bear: Rachel defends the children with a shotgun. This is enough to scare Harry off.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Harry
  • Meaningful Name: The Spoons (the wife's name is Icey), who sell ice cream.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a 3, because the violence is bloodless, except for a small spot of it on Ben Harper (Peter Graves) after the robbery, yet has a somewhat disturbing, menacing quality to it.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The Spoons seem to have this reaction once the truth about Powell comes out at the end. They actually lead an angry lynch mob against Powell, complete with Torches and Pitchforks.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Rachel pulls a shotgun on Powell when he goes after John.
  • Nostalgia Filter: The adorably quaint little town.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: With Lampshade Hanging
  • Offstage Villainy: Powell does a lot of this. In fact, we only know he's a Serial Killer because he tells us so in a monologue early in the film. We really only get to see one of his murders: Willa's. Though early on we do see some children finding the corpse of another victim.
  • Only Sane Man: John Harper, although even he has his crazy moments. Mr. Spoon sometimes has moments, but his wife is swift to fix that.
    • Rachel Cooper, smart enough to see the inconsistencies in Powell's sob story, smart enough to pull a shotgun on him.
  • Scenery Porn: The riverboat scene.
  • Serial Killer: Walt Spoon: Twenty-five wives! Icey Spoon: And he killed every last one of them!
  • Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Harry watches the burlesque dancer at the beginning of the film with an expression that is equal parts lust and loathing. The knife poking through his pants isn't subtle.
  • Sinister Minister: Harry maintains that he's doing God's work. Then again, he's nuts. Rachel doesn't fall for the act for a moment.
  • Smug Snake: Mrs. Spoon really needs to die. Harry's a smug bastard, too.
  • Something Else Also Rises: Ever seen this trope acted out before with a switchblade? Didn't think so. But that's just the kind of guy Harry Powell is...
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Leanin', leanin', safe and secure from all alarm...
  • Southern Gothic: Set in the Ohio Valley rather than the Deep South but still very much fits the trope.
  • Stock Parodies: Harry's tattoos have become one of these.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: "Preacher Harry Powell."
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else: Harry Powell is either this or a Devil in Plain Sight, depending on how sensitive your Evildar is. To all appearances, a charming and folksy preacher and the best stepfather a Kid Hero could ever want. Actually a Knife Nut Bluebeard Serial Killer.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Rachel does this frequently.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The film's climax has the Spoons leading an angry lynch mob against Powell.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Powell does not react well when the children elude him in the boat.
  • We Will Meet Again: When Rachel chases him off with the shotgun, Powell promises he'll be back... after dark.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Harry is a master at this.
  • Wicked Stepfather: Harry Powell, one of the most prominent examples in cinematic history.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Harry has no qualms about attempting to beat the truth about the whereabouts of the money out of John and Pearl. He even threatens Pearl with slitting John's throat in order to browbeat her into spilling the beans.
  • You're Not My Father: John makes this clear to Harry right from the beginning.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/TheNightOfTheHunter