Film Studies | An Analysis of Night of the Hunter
L-O-V-E Night of the Hunter, H-A-T-E Preachers
Words by Roxanne Harvey
Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish, is about a crooked preacher seeking money. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, the main antagonist. At the beginning of the movie’s plot, the father of two children hides $10,000 in a place no one would think to look: in his daughter Pearl’s dolly. He makes his children, John and Pearl, promise not to tell where the money is. When Harry Powell finds out, he sets out to kill their mother and find the money. The film explores the themes of love, religion, identity, and greed.
"Harry Powell uses religion to excuse his wrongdoings, crediting God with every opportunity to kill, steal, and manipulate."
At the other end of the spectrum is Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Gish, who uses religion to better her life and the children she cares for, including John and Pearl. Powell uses his knuckle tattoos to explain the power of “l-o-v-e” over “h-a-t-e.” With his hands interlocked, Preacher Powell arm wrestles himself, ultimately letting love win. This was a show for the townspeople to gain their trust, but it proves true by the end of the movie. While Harry is chasing the children around to steal from, and possibly kill, them, John and Pearl have found a safe-haven with mother goose Rachel Cooper. When she isn’t teaching them scripture or telling biblical stories, Rachel is having the kids work and build up character by tending to the farm. Because Rachel’s use of scripture is used for loving purposes, she ultimately wins out over the hateful Harry Powell.
The very first lines of the movie contain this bible quote, spoken by Rachel Cooper: “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.” Rachel compares herself to a tree later in the film, calling her fruits the children she cares for. Harry Powell’s fruit is dead bodies and money: money stolen from widows, children, fathers, etc. Though Mitchum’s character seems goodhearted to a common bystander, it’s what he’s left behind that proves what kind of person he truly is: a greedy man who will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he deserves.
Night of the Hunter is a beautifully shot film.
The cinematography accurately displays the emotions and subtexts of the plot. One of the most noticeable cinematography effects is the iris-out on Robert Mitchum during the scene where John and Pearl are hiding in the basement. The screen blacks out and the visible circle follows Harry Powell and then settles on the window where the two children are looking through, scared. This type of focus reminds the viewer of how much power Mr. Powell has. Then, by settling on the window, the director is hinting to the audience that Powell is on his way towards the children. Powell is above ground, tall, and in a dark suit and hat; we are afraid of him. He’s big and powerful. The window is at the very bottom of the screen. The height difference alone shows the power relationship, but by following the iris-out, we now know that this big scary man is a predator and the children are his prey.
There are so many moments like this in the film. It should be watched by anyone pursuing a film career, or anyone who enjoys a quality movie. This is one movie that’s lasted half a century and is still highly regarded, and I assume it’ll still be viewed as one of the best-shot movies in 2055.