“Grown ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” - Roald Dahl
As parents, we do our best to protect our little ones for as long as possible from the nastiness we secretly know will invade their lives soon enough. We also try to encourage them to see the world as essentially a safe place where grown ups are (on the whole) to be trusted. How then to deal with a troubling film like The Night of the Hunter that undermines in all ways possible these essential pillars on which childhood rests?
The film, released in 1955 and directed by the great character actor Charles Laughton (his one and only directing credit), is based on a Davis Grubb novel, which tells the story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), an unhinged religious fanatic who marries a gullible widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in an effort to get his hands on $10,000 of stolen loot. Powell discovers that the money has been hidden by Willa's children, sworn to secrecy by their real father before his arrest and subsequent death by hanging, as he sets about on his relentless and murderous pursuit of the children through a fantastical and nightmarish Depression-era West Virginian setting.
The film, failing miserably to connect with audiences on its initial release, has since gathered an enthusiastic following and is now heralded as one of the best films ever made. In addition to employing filming techniques, set design and an exaggerated acting style largely inspired by German Expressionism, the film also bends genres -- using both film noir and horror motifs in equal measure to present its skewed fairy tale vision of lost innocence. The Night of the Hunter, like all good fairytales, succeeds in blurring the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar -- setting the stage for a journey of hardship leading to a ‘happily-ever-after’ resolution.
The screenshot above takes place midway through the film following the children’s narrow escape from Powell’s clutches and into a small boat that carries them down a river to temporary safety. They seek shelter and a place to sleep in a farmhouse, as John (Billy Chapin) is suddenly awoken by the ominous sound of Powell’s voice singing his now trademark rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and then sees him in silhouette leisurely ambling on horseback in the distance.
This terrifyingly beautiful shot introduces us to the unrelenting pursuer -- think The Terminator, Michael Myers or most recently the hidden force in this year’s It Follows -- embodying a nightmare scenario whereby there is no escape.
The visual of Powell on horseback is reminiscent of iconic American Westerns from the 1940s, but the impressionistic staged setting and back lighting add menace and disorientation to the scene. Powell’s pursuit of the children up until this point has been desperate and at times violent, but here he is calm and serene; a ghostlike apparition on the horizon. Is John still asleep? The hunter invading his dreams, foreshadowing the likes of Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street thirty years later?
It isn’t until John and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who plays mother hen to a gaggle of other orphans, that the children are truly safe -- now part of a family unit that stick together and are joined by a common familial bond to protect and look out for one another.
This adopted family stands in stark contrast to their actual family -- an errant criminal minded father, hopelessly delusional mother and unfortunate drunk uncle (James Gleason) -- none of whom provide the moral compass and security that the children need. It’s their collective weakness that allows the predatory Powell to invade the children’s lives with such ferocious intent. But while Powell may have tricks and charms at his disposal, casting his charismatic spell over the children even though they know he poses a threat, Cooper is his equal; an opposing force of good who actually embodies the traits that Powell’s preacher uses as a disguise -- true religious faith, a charitable nature and a desire to do right in the eyes of God.
The standoff on the porch near the end of the film, which sees a shotgun toting Cooper keeping watchful guard from her rocking chair while Powell lurks in the shadows, couldn’t be more symbolic. Powell once again sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" but this time Cooper joins in as if using a counter spell to render him powerless -- the two forces of good and evil, love and hate (as tattooed on Powell’s fingers), in a harmonious metaphysical showdown.
Screenshot is an ongoing column from Gabriel Solomons, Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Editor-in-Chief of The Big Picture magazine and Series Editor of The World Film Locations and Fan Phenomena book series. Screenshot examines a single shot from a film and presents an in-depth analysis.