With his sole directorial undertaking, Charles Laughton created the unsettlingly haunting, most exquisitely choreographed, sumptuously crafted, pristinely elemental and the most thematically tunicate filmic Gothic cinematic Expressionist picture belonging to the talkie era, The Night of the Hunter. Moreover, Laughton's picture is a pitch-black fairytale, a morbidly thrilling Biblical allegory, a cinematic storybook of the recalling of past lore of tales emanating from the Bible, displaying a puissantly drawn reflection on the content in the film's technical formation, as a monumentally majestic adulation of silent classics as made by D.W. Griffith (with delirious mimicking of archaic and supposedly superannuated techniques and devices like the iris down). In this Depression-set tone poem of searing imagery, Laughton summons the primal aphotic duality, first, fundamentally, between astonishingly mesmerizing, beautiful black and white, as well as between good and evil (with the former dualism cinematically rendered through the latter), love and hate, honesty and mendacity, chastity and sinfulness, complex adulthood and simplistic childhood, salvation and perdition, godliness and wickedness.
Laughton opens the oneiric tale with the importantly named Rachel (as in “Rachel and her children” from the Book of Genesis) Cooper (as in, protector of the chicken coop, defender against foxes?) appearing with the disembodied heads of several children against the backdrop of a starry heaven instructing the young ones about the perils of false prophets. Played by silent screen giant Lillian Gish (in partly another nod to the purity of silent cinema, and of Griffith's art, wrought as it is in part by the essential narrative sanctitude of so many silent masterworks and the virtue Gish radiated under Griffith's direction), Rachel's honeyed voice soothingly relates the parable, directly into the camera (an action that singularly foretells the film's child perspective), “Now, you remember, children, how I told you last Sunday about the good Lord going up into the mountain and talking to the people. And how he said, 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,' and how he said that King Solomon in all his glory was not as beautiful as the lilies of the field. And I know you won't forget, 'Don't judge lest ye be judged,' because I explained that to you. And then the good Lord went on to say, 'Beware of false prophets that come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.'” As though rapidly descending from that heaven, Laughton's camera swoops downward, capturing the vista, the land on which the dark, adult and Gothic fairytale will take place. The film's setting, the Ohio River Valley's sprawling farmlands, is evocatively proffered as children innocently play with one another. Within seconds, however, the idyllic game of hide-and-seek—that most relative-to-age and childlike innocence game, robbed of its uncomplicated beauty in adulthood as a testament to knowingness, the adult's delight at the child unaware that he or she is indeed not truly hidden, perpetually recrudescent for children when playing with one another—is hideously punctuated by the discovery of a murdered body in the symbolically subjacent, hellishly black dwelling host to all manner of childhood Grand Guignol tales, an ominously photographed basement, representing the first of several sightings of the extinguished flesh of God's mortal children. Laughton sends his camera reeling from the horror, walloping the viewer with Rachel's final word of vicariously received warning: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.”
With richly cataclysmic suddenness, audibly punctuated by the dramatic shift in Walter Schumann's portentously ominous score, the screenplay written by James Agee and Laughton, based on the 1953 novel of the same title by David Grubb, transitions to the vile half of this white-and-black, good-and-evil equipoised allegory, a bogus preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a sleazily, unctuously maintained, murderously malevolent madman. Literally and figuratively black-cloaked beneath the visage of the his apparel, including the protective white collar attendant in his vocation, he is a rapacious and diabolically loathsome cretin, he avariciously targets women from whom he can steal money, nonchalantly snuffing out their lives as he proceeds apace in his wicked ways. Endowed with all of the charismatic ease and assuredness most successful men of the cloth are blessed to possess as well as a handsome exterior, he virtually bewitches the townspeople he encounters, drawing women informed of his availability by the gossiping elements of the rural vicinity, twisting his singularly privileged and empowered position as an attractant of devotion, love and respect by Christian people seeing him as a man of God, an avatar of Christianity. Projecting a psychopathic rationale from God through talking with the deity, he wallows in a weariness of purpose like the emblematic characterization of Death as a bored worker worn down by tedium. “Well now, what is it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. You say the word, Lord, I'm on the way... You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with the little wad of bills hid away in the sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand.”
With untempered alacrity, the picture transitions to a moment of suspense supported with the sexual repression that finds aggressive and physical expression in Harry's fiendishly murderous deeds against women. Attending a burlesque stage performance, he appears equally mesmerized and obliquely repulsed by a stripper strutting about on the stage. Laughton closes in on Harry's clenched left hand, and the camera smashes against the word tattooed on his fingers, which reads “H-A-T-E.” Furiously, the hand reaches into Harry's coat pocket. Aroused by the performance, Harry grabs the knife hidden within his pocket; in a moment of blatant phallic symbolization—to be repeated with assiduous propensity by the screenplay—the flick-knife shoots outward, elongated by his excitement. Harry, beside himself, compulsively and possessedly rips out the pocket, enacting the only penetrative action his impotency will allow. Viewed as yet another way in which the film supposedly hammered fundamentalism and suffocating religious hypocrisy by many critics at the time of the film's release, Harry's sexual impotency providing the theoretical long-ago demonic metamorphosis of Harry's soul, mind and being, is in actuality an anti-anti-Christian thematic proposition, particularly, as it were, in a Catholic context juxtaposed against this Gothic fashioning of a fraudulent representative of Protestantism. Leo Steinberg's seminal study of the importance of sexuality to the bolstering of the increasingly humanistic depiction of Christ during the time of the Renaissance—an outstanding historic and artistic vein worthy of immense study unto itself—The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion provocatively notes the appetence of the image of the Madonna joyously and cathartically exposing the Christ's member as testament to the human incarnation as a declarative statement of God as Man.
Having established the overarching battle between the forces of “Good” and “Evil,” represented in Platonic terms by Rachel Cooper and Harry Powell, Laughton efficaciously reverts to the schema promised by the prologue, framing the larger story within the entirely proper context of the two children who must hide from the ravening wolf of Harry. Finding an ill source of protection from their mother, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), the fairytale aspect of the picture waxes in vitality, as Laughton meticulously crafts the gorgeously exaggerated tale. When circumstance allows a pathway to a loot of ten thousand dollars for Harry, he makes himself present in Willa's life; the adults are almost entirely blind to Harry's manipulations and machinations, for all they see when they look at him is the collar behind which he hides. However, the two children of the recently widowed Willa, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), are gifted with the preternatural sensory defensive (and morally sound) carapace, which is especially heightened in young John, who perceptibly sees straight through Harry. This apparent incongruity may challenge the more drably unappreciative consumer of these narrative configurations but once one accepts the fairytale ornamentation of Laughton's creation, they are obviously stellar components that play a considerable part in weaving the tapestry of The Night of the Hunter.
Willa works for the appropriately named Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), who admonishes her almost ceaselessly with her garrulous and gossipy harping about raising her children alone. Willa needs a man, and Harry is the ideal fit. “No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two... You're a grown woman with two little young-uns. It's a man you need in the house, Willa Harper.” After Willa finally yields to Harry's duplicitous advances, and the carping of Icey, the wedding night is a journey into psychological hell. Bitterly snuffing out his wife's sexual desire for him, Harry cuttingly insults her, shoveling the repressed psycho-sexual mania from which he suffers onto the emotionally vulnerable Willa. “You thought, Willa,” he growls with indignant loathing, “that the moment you walked in that door, I'd paw you in that abominable way that men are supposed to on their wedding night. Ain't that right now?” Protectively and embarrassingly, she covers her breasts with her hands, protesting, “No, no, no.” Harry posits that marital sexual relations are for one and only one purpose, to beget children. Asking his wife whether or not she wishes to beget more children, he lords over her, casting her as a woman thoroughly soaked in sinfulness. After she admits that she does not wish for more children, he leaves her, alone, desirous only of the money that has been hidden by the woman's son. She had been told by Icey that “no woman really... wants that,” referring to sex. Willa, like a sheep, deeply religious, finds herself victimized by the preacher husband, first spiritually and psychologically and then physically. In a scene of hypnotic, daedalic power, Harry stands, looking heavenward, his standing frame photographed by Stanley Cortez—whose work throughout the picture is regularly nothing less than awe-inspiring—in a lambent pool of light, centered in the A-like shape of the bedroom's spatial dimensions appearing more like the usual pointed form. He stalks his prey as she finally voices what she knows to be true. The scene is fearless in its prolonged intensity, and simply breathtakingly scripted, shot and acted.
As the two children finally run away from the hunter, they encounter homes and farms in the countryside dotting the snaking riverside that are almost grotesquely misshapen, fascinatingly designed cut-outs that further denote the unquestionable influence of silent cinema on Laughton's thriller of phantasmagoria. The blending of the Southern Gothic, originating in late eighteenth century England, and placed here in the Depression-era, and the Grimm's fairytale is most fitting, as the English Laughton calls upon German Expressionism to bring his most uniquely sensational vision to complete fruition. Willa's disheveled corpse, after having been penetrated in the only way Harry is capable of penetrating a woman, is sent to a watery grave, baptismally “clean” (as she herself earlier calls herself), cleansed by the water, her golden “hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water, and that slit in her throat, like she had an extra mouth,” as one character notes privately in one of many examples of the film's Grimm-like dark, absurdist flourishes of black humor. Later, after encountering the creatures empowered with life by God—tortoises, frogs, rabbits, owls—the two children find themselves rescued by Rachel on the bank of the river, John particularly fulfilling the role of Moses. Finally, Laughton's one directorial picture, dismissed and reviled and loathed when it was released over fifty years ago, bravely demonstrates that most important of truths: that, truths, indeed, are bitter and must be honestly sought and found, shared and related. Unlike the shallow performance of Mitchum's character—so brilliantly performed by Mitchum himself—in which his conflicting hands tattooed with “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” wrestle with one another, with the latter prevailing for practically the entire bout until the former miraculously surmounts the evil of “H-A-T-E” (so iconic a pairing and a struggle as to be touched upon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Blues Brothers and Do the Right Thing among other films), the hard, acrid integrity of Rachel, who, after observing a sweetly innocent bunny rabbit being pitilessly annihilated by a hunting owl, notes with solemnity, “It's a hard world for little things.”