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Film / The Night of the Hunter

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"Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms."
"Ah, little lad, you're starin' at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand-Left Hand - the story of good and evil?...H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low...L-O-V-E...The right hand, friends! The hand of love...These fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warrin' and a-tuggin', one against the other."
"Preacher" Harry Powell

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American film noir thriller directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum.

The setting is rural West Virginia during The Great Depression. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a charismatic but mentally-disturbed itinerant preacher and 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 from the silent movie days who mostly played character roles after talkies came in, appears as Rachel Cooper, a Cool Old Lady who defends the children from Powell.

Probably Robert Mitchum's best and most iconic performance, and definitely his creepiest (save for Cape Fear, perhaps). This is the one where he has "Love" and "Hate" tattooed across his knuckles. Based on a 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, the film is 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.
    • Another good example is Birdie Steptoe. He is initially set up as someone John looks up to, yet when John comes to him for help after Willa is murdered, Birdie is a useless drunk mess due to being scared that he will be blamed for what happened due to the circumstances around it.
    • By the time we meet Rachel, we're so used to every adult falling for Powell's charms that it comes across as genuinely shocking when she sees right through him.
  • An Aesop: Robert Mitchum himself said the message of the movies is that it's important people don't simply trust people just because they dress like a preacher and quote the Bible, noting that dangerous predators use this as a means to get victims.
  • Alpha Bitch: Icey Spoon is this to the adults in the community John and Pearl lived in. She may not be a teenager, but socially she has the most dominant personality among her peers due to being so thoroughly obnoxious and domineering. While Powell's also incredibly manipulative, Willa marrying him was half Powell and half Icey nagging Willa about getting a new man in her house.
  • The Atoner: Rachel states 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. As Rachel Cooper announces at the start:
    Rachel: "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them."
  • Big Brother Instinct: John is very protective of Pearl.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Harry Powell will be executed and the children have found a new home with Rachel, but they have most likely gone insane (or at least gotten PTSD) and have lost both their parents (and don't even get to keep the money, as it was exposed during Powell's arrest).
  • The Bluebeard: Harry has an MO of marrying wealthy widows, then killing them and stealing their possessions. Lampshaded towards the end by the angry mob.
  • Book Ends: The movie opens with Rachel Cooper's disembodied head reading a Bible passage directly to the viewer, in a sort of abstract, dreamlike prologue. It ends with her once again directly addressing the viewer in her famous "children abide" monologue.
  • Brainwashed: Harry convinces Willa that she is a sinful woman and therefore deserves all the abuse he hurls at her.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Rachel in the final scene looks at the camera and talks to the audience about how the children will abide, and endure.
  • Brick Joke: A rather grim example. An early scene has a hangman lamenting to his wife how much he hates his job, and the moral toll of taking human lives, most of whom were just people in bad situations, desperate to provide for their families. At the end of the movie, this character reappears, tasked with hanging Powell.
    This time, it'll be a pleasure!
  • 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.
  • Chiaroscuro: This movie has some of the starkest, most dramatically contrasted black-and-white photography ever seen outside of German Expressionism, symbolizing the contrast between good and evil as Harry Powell darkens the lives of the children. See this shot right before Harry murders Willa, with the brightly lit bedroom in the darkness, or this one where Lillian Gish waits for Powell in a darkened house with a shotgun, or this incredible shot that recalls The Exorcist two decades later, when Willa comes home and the house is practically glowing.
  • Children Are Innocent: They abide, too. Though John is obviously torn with guilt about his father telling him to hide the money, making him swear on it, while society condemns him for his crimes of theft. In the end, when the police arrest Powell, John breaks down in tears and smashes the doll with the money on Powell.
  • Children as Pawns: Both in the book and the movie, Harry Powell tries to turn Pearl against her older brother John in order to convince her to tell him where Pearl and John's executed father had concealed the money he stole from a bank. Or to use her as pawn to make John speak, whatever came first. He also flirts with Ruby to make the naive teenage girl tell him if John and Pearl were adopted by Rachel Cooper.
  • 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. He does indeed have real religious beliefs but it's mostly there to confirm that in his own twisted mind, all of his lies, crimes, and killings are justified.
  • Creepy Basement: The basement in the house where the children try to hide from Powell. It becomes one of the most intense scenes when the kids try and get out by trapping Powell there.
  • Creepy Children Singing: After Ben's execution, the local children taunt John and Pearl with this:
    "Hing, hang, hung
    See what the hangman done
    Hung, hang, hing
    See the robber swing..."
  • Determinator: John will do anything to keep his father's secret. Also Powell, who will do anything to get the stolen money, even if it means attempting to murder children.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Harry is a knife-welding "preacher" who radiates barely contained malice and anger, yet almost no one seems to notice. His generally good looks (being played by Mitchum), and surface charm allows him to insinuate himself well into the town, and with his family.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The last few minutes take place during the Christmas season, months after the main story.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Harry returns to Rachel's house to confront the children even after Rachel's sternly threatens him with her shotgun. Upon returning, Harry is face to face with Rachel and tries to pull a fast one only to get shot in the arm. Harry horribly underestimate Rachel actually acting on her threat to him.
  • 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 changes when he finally breaks down towards the end.
  • Dramatic Irony: Thanks to Harry's opening monologue, we already know he's a serial killer, so the movie is framed by the audience knowing what an evil guy he is, but the other characters being unaware. The suspense in the film isn't his villainy, but waiting to see if anyone will figure him out and finally stand up to him.note 
  • 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.
  • Evil Is Bigger: 6' Harry Powell is taller than everyone else in the film except 6' 3" Ben Harper.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Implied with Ben Harper.
  • Fairy Tale Motifs: In fact, it is reminiscent of the original The Brothers Grimm tales.
  • Fille Fatale: The teenaged Ruby falls madly in love with Harry. She is implied to have some serious psychological problems, though in the epilogue she seems to be doing a lot better.
  • Film Noir: Albeit an unusual example in that it's set mostly in rural America rather than urban America, and is set during The Great Depression, and has many echoes of silent cinema.
  • 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.
  • Foil: Harry Powell and Rachel Cooper are stark opposites on the same spectrum. They're both framed as Preachers of the Christian faith in a sense (and both often quote scripture), but Powell (despite his superficial charm and good looks) embodies the darkest aspects of Christian fanaticism in the form of his serial killer ways, while Ms. Cooper (despite her rougher exterior) embodies the light in Christianity in how she protects children from harm.
    • Also Rachel Cooper to Icey Spoon. Both are resolute women who quote the Bible. But Icey is a bully who falls for Powell's charisma and drives Willa into his arms, while Rachel is a tough Mama Bear who is not fooled for a moment by Powell and protects the children from him.
  • Grimmification: Notably the Bible verses and children's songs used to eerie effect. Charles Laughton indeed admitted that he was going for a kind of creepy fairy-tale approach, calling it a twisted Mother Goose tale.
  • Guess Who I'm Marrying?: A very wicked stepfather.
  • Hastily Hidden MacGuffin: Ben Harper hides money that he robbed from a bank in his little daughter's doll when the police come to arrest him. Harry then spends the whole film looking for it, marrying and murdering Harper's wife and pursuing the runaway children.
  • 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. 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, including making him swear, and insisting that he is now the man of the house who has to make the decisions, as opposed to his mother. This is in contrast to Rachel, who knows that if John is allowed to just be a child, he'll be okay.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Literally the only two people in the entire movie who have no trouble seeing through Powell's bullshit are John and Rachel. Everyone else is won over by Powell's phony charm, even if the knuckle tattoos and story about "Love" and "Hate" come across as sincerely creepy.
  • 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 never 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". Harry Powell's sinister, folksy singing of the (otherwise quite uplifting) Christian hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" also has shades of this.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The heavy-handed Mrs. Rachel Cooper.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The local children taunt John and Pearl with a nasty singsong after their father is hanged. ("Hing, hang, hung / See what the hangman done...")
  • Knight Templar: Harry Powell... perhaps?
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Icey Spoon lives her life thinking she knows everything, so she's certain that the best man Willa Harper can settle for is that nice Revered Powell.
  • Knuckle Tattoos: Possibly the Ur-Example. Certainly the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier.
  • Large Ham: Harry Powell. "JOHN DOESN'T MATTER!"
    • Even in universe, Harry's preacher talk is transparently phony, but the dimwitted townsfolk and lonely Willa fall for it
  • Leitmotif: Preacher Powell has two. One is a menacing pair of booming notes that tend to play whenever he arrives. The other is a more In-Universe one in the form of the Christian hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", which Powell frequently sings out loud throughout the film (often being heard singing it before he actually shows up).
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Mrs. Spoon, holding forth at the church picnic about how Willa's marriage to Ben "wasn't love, that was just flapdoodle":
    Icey Spoon: When you've been married to a man forty years, you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to my Walt that long, and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning.
  • Mama Bear: Rachel defends the children with a shotgun. This is enough to scare Harry off.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Harry. Very manipulative, and most definitely a bastard.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The Spoons (the wife's name is Icey), who sell ice cream.
    • In the Bible, Rachel is the wife of Jacob and mother of Benjamin and Joseph, making her a mother figure to two of the twelve Tribes of Israel. This movie's Rachel is also a mother figure, albeit an adoptive one.
  • Moses in the Bullrushes: John and Pearl arrive at Rachel's farm in a drifting rowboat. The other children in her care even lampshade this.
  • 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. John and Pearl travel all night, before utterly exhausted, collapsing in the hayloft of a barn. Then, in the distance, we hear Harry's song, and we see him ride right past the farm, only a few minutes behind them. John darkly wonders "Don't he never sleep?"
  • 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.
  • Oh, Crap!: John in the hayloft, when he hears Powell singing, then when he sees him in horseback on the horizon.
  • Ominous Fog: The whole sequence where Willa comes home, finds out the truth about Harry, then goes to bed and lets him murder her, is wreathed in thick, mood-setting ominous fog.
  • One-Book Author:
    • In regard to Charles Laughton's career as a film director (the original release received a poor reception from both audiences and critics).
    • Also the only full-length feature film appearance for Sally Jane Bruce, who played Pearl.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • John Harper, until his Heroic BSoD at the climax. 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.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: After Powell tells Mrs. Spoon that Willa "ran away from home", Mrs. Spoon (in her usual false moralism) ponders out loud what on Earth possessed Willa for her to abandon her children. Powell, without missing a beat, just answers "Satan!".
  • Rule of Symbolism: While sitting up with her shotgun, Rachel spots an owl catching a rabbit. Forlornly, she says to herself that "It's a hard world for little things."
  • Scenery Porn: The riverboat scene. Water reflected on lake at night is both scary and eerie.
  • Serial Killer: "Twenty-five wives!" "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 coat (and in the original screenplay, it was his pants) isn't subtle. After marrying the children's mother, he pointedly refuses to sleep with her, and mocks her desire.
  • 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.
  • Sinister Switchblade: Just about the most sinister one ever. Harry Powell's favorite weapon, which he likes to flick open to intimidate little children, or when he's about to slit his wife's throat, or when he's getting a Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny feeling.
  • Smuggling with Dolls: The stolen money that Powell spends the film seeking is used to stuff a little girl's rag doll.
  • 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..."
  • Scream Discretion Shot: The brief sequence of an owl catching a rabbit (described above under Rule of Symbolism). We see the owl on the branch. We see the rabbit. We see the owl swoop. We see Rachel's tired face, and we hear the rabbit's squeal.
  • Southern Gothic: Set in the Ohio Valley rather than the Deep South but still very much fits the trope.
  • Southern Gothic Satan: Sinister, charming, and otherworldly, Harry Powell has strong shades of this trope. He exposes the shallow moralism of the people who fall for him, and the genuine virtue of those who don't.
  • Stage Money: When Pearl is making paper dolls from the money, you can see the bills are actually Mexican currency ("Diez Pesos" is plainly visible). The US Treasury Department forbade filmmakers from showing actual American money on-screen at the time due to fears over counterfeiting.
  • Stock Parodies: Harry's tattoos have become one of these.
  • Straw Misogynist: Harry Powell really hates women to a startling degree. He regularly kills them, and while he persecutes both John and Pearl, he is openly abusive to Pearl, including slapping her at one point, but he's politely insidious to John. When Rachel Cooper asks him where John and Pearl's mother is when he claims that he is their father, instead of saying that she's dead, he says that she ran off with another man (during prayer meeting no less), and in the finale he refers to Rachel and her makeshift orphanage as "whores of Babylon".
  • 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. He seems like a charming and folksy preacher and the best stepfather a Kid Hero could ever want, but is actually a Psycho Knife Nut, The Bluebeard, and a Serial Killer.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Rachel does this frequently, which makes it a little more plausible in the final scene when she starts speaking directly to the viewer.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The film's climax has the Spoons leading an angry lynch mob against Powell.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Icey Spoon's a twit, but she's so obnoxious most people tend to defer to her because she thinks she knows best for everyone.
  • Vice City: Harry characterizes Cincinnati, Ohio and Parkersburg, West Virginia as "Sodoms of the Ohio River".
  • Villainous Breakdown: Powell does not react well when the children elude him in the boat.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Powell is this due to being a Manipulative Bastard. John and Rachel Cooper are the only two that see through his act.
  • We Will Meet Again: When Rachel chases him off with the shotgun, Powell promises he'll be back... after dark.
  • Wham Line: "And he ain't no preacher neither!" This line sets up the final act, showing that Rachel isn't taken in by Harry's phony piety and that she's more than willing to challenge him.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: "Oh, look, you made me lose my temper."
  • 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 Have to Believe Me!: John tells his mother that Harry was asking about the money Ben stole. Willa tells him to stop telling lies.
    • It's hard to put into words how gratifying it is when Rachel finally does believe John and calls Harry a liar to his face.
  • You're Not My Father: John makes this clear to Harry right from the beginning, almost in these exact words.
    You ain't my pa.