One fine day in the mid-’50s, the eminent British actor Charles Laughton and the brilliant (if doomed) American critic James Agee put their minds together with the aim of adapting David Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter into a screenplay. Agee was drunk. He couldn’t put together a coherent screenplay. But he had the mood right — Southern Gothic — and Laughton slapped that Agee madness together with a noir look and German Expressionist approach. Most of the scenes in the movie are mean and tight. The shadows go on forever. Interiors are framed in pointy triangles of light against the gloom.
Then, of course, there is Robert Mitchum. He plays Harry Powell, the preacher with “HATE” tattooed on one set of knuckles and “LOVE” on the other. Powell has a particular hatred of women. In prison with a young man who robbed a bank and then hid the money before he was captured, the preacher becomes convinced that the man’s two children know where the money is. When he gets out, he goes to find them.
Night of the Hunter is a nightmare movie. Its leering camera perspective is that of childhood terror. After their mother is killed by the preacher, the children escape on a skiff down the river. That river scene. So strange, so haunting. I don’t really have a theory about the shots of animals (a rabbit, a frog, an owl) framed in the foreground as the children drift down the river in the background. Perhaps it is simply what a Mother Goose tale would look like if things went very wrong.
That’s what the movie is really about. It’s a confirmation of the most essential childhood fear, which is that reality is evil. The children’s flight from reality is punctuated by their inability to shake the preacher, who keeps appearing on the horizon riding on a broken down horse and singing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” “Leaning… Leaning…”
It took an outsider, in this case the British Laughton, to tap into the undercurrent of American culture in order to make such a truly disturbing film. Nathaniel Hawthorne is exhumed here, as is Salem, the harsh and millenarian sects and creeds that one could find along the dirt roads of rural America during the First and Second Great Awakenings.
The film was a popular and critical flop when it was released. American popular culture was not particularly in the mood for portrayals of evil in the 1950s. The idea that the devil actually walks amongst us has generally been relegated to those religious gatherings in outdoor tents where everyday folk suddenly speak in tongues.
But darker thoughts are always lurking at the edges of consciousness. After the reality of the Second World War, as Hannah Arendt used to say, the problem of evil became tangible as the central moral question of our time. America was protected from some of that in its cultural self-reliance. The genius of The Night of the Hunter is its ability to tap into those themes using a purely American idiom.
At the end of the movie, the evil preacher is thwarted by a goodly woman (played brilliantly by Lillian Gish) and captured by the police. At the trial, the young boy whose mother was murdered cannot bring himself to testify against the preacher. It is an off note in what would otherwise be a happy ending. But the little boy knows something. Evil doesn’t go away. • 4 November 2008