The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Towards the end if the Film noir cycle, it was still producing some classic piece of cinema. The war was over but there was still a need to see the darker side of life on the big screen in the heavily religious overtones in The Night of the Hunter (1955) which gave Robert Mitchum one of his most memorable roles as the crooked preacher man Harry Powell who would stop at nothing throughout.
Set during the depression era when a father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank to give to the poor, on the run from the law, he hides the money, swearing his children John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Bruce) to absolute secrecy. Even the audience for a time has no knowledge of the money. Knowing more than his soon to be widowed wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) who believes the money is list.
When recently released ex-preacher Harry Powell arrives in their sleepy town, his poetic use of the scriptures has everyone under his spell. A man driven by evil, under the guise of the God, who he believes tells him to commit the awful crimes he has already committed. Having a flawed morality that allows him to go on, in the word of god-mighty. Mitchum injects him with a deadly presence that spell-bound’s everyone to see only a preacher whose interpretation of the bible that the Southern community understands, which has been lost in recent times. A dangerous predatory throw-back allowed to flourish.
Only the children, mainly young John Harper who sees right through his new father who has no intention of sticking around, driven by his negative interpretations of the bible. Wanting more than anything to break a secret that two children made with their father. A powerful bond that cannot easily be broken, John is far stronger than his younger sister Pearl who is more easily lead, thankfully remaining faithful to her older brother.
The film is made up of three strong parts, all theatrical and deeply stylized by the lighting to produce a dark film where traditional American values are tested, the basic religious foundations of a country opposite the right to protect the family home. Strong performance throughout. Lillian Gish shows in the role of Rachel Cooper a spinster who takes in stray children that she still can hold her ground against the formidable Mitchum who owns the film without a doubt. It’s faultless in the making of a classic thriller in the hands of Charles Laughton who gives it his all.
It’s hard to ignore the symbolism, namely found within the book of Revelations that talks of the horsemen of the apocalypse. focusing on the white horse which can be pure, and still carry death on it’s back. Powell would’ve had interpreted this book of the bible in a way that allows the righteous to carry out evil acts.
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Unlike the pale horse which is death, ridden in film by the likes of Clint Eastwood‘s preacher in Pale Rider (1985) who kills only those who have deserve to be killed in the eyes of god. The abuse of power in the later film is more justified, to kill those who trespass on those who are good.
“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”
The white horse in film is seen usually as a symbol of purity or an unachievable object that cannot be tamed easily. Owned mainly by the enemy. Far rarer than other horses. Used in Night of the Hunter beautifully to illustrated the flawed righteousness of the Powell using the word of God as a reason for committing his terrible crimes, He knows he has left a trail of death in his wake. Blind to modern ethics. Whilst Winters Willa Harper wants to do right by her community and family before doing right by her new husband who puts God in the bedroom before his wife.
Gish’s spinster is the opposite of Powell, whose interpretation of the bible is all about love, taking in lost children. Even with her weary outlook on life, she doesn’t project this on those views onto the children, especially Ruby (Gloria Castillo) on the verge of adulthood, more understanding of her age and life. Life changes people, and love and understanding is needed to do that, which the bible teaches.
A fascinating film that is rooted in religion, its power on society, and how we must use our own judgement, with an open mind to its teachings. Not being blinded by it, using it as a guide to living by the letter. An entertaining thriller that is the right length for its content, rooted in Americas fabric, yet so very of its time.
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