By SARA SHIVER McBRIDE
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a fairytale about children who are saved from their evil stepfather by a good witch. It’s an American ‘50’s movie that looks like Fritz Lang watched TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and then ate some bad sausages before bedtime. It was made by an actor who “just wanted to direct,” but who never made another movie after it failed to impress either audiences or critics. I have seen a lot of movies in my life — fewer than some people but more than most — and I haven’t seen another one like THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. It’s a genuine original; perhaps not entirely successful but always rich and strange.
Powell gets pinched by the cops at a burlesque show for car theft and sentenced to a month in prison; at the same time, a father (Peter Graves) returns home bleeding from a gunshot wound with the police hot on his tail. He hangs the responsibility for concealing $10,000 in stolen money around the necks of his two little kids, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). He hides the money Pearl’s rag doll -— incidentally, another female that has been cut open. Of course, the bandit and the preacher end up in the same prison cell, and like all men in this plot situation Dad is a sleep talker. After he’s hanged and Powell is released, the sinister minister comes looking for the children and the widow Willa (Shelley Winters).
There’s a lot going on in this movie. It’s certainly not the film I was expecting, or at least it isn’t all the film I was expecting. That’s the first third, which is a tense, perfect thriller with disturbing sexual overtones and a nailbiting finish. Then, when the children escape Powell and float down the river in their father’s boat, it becomes a dreamlike storybook fantasy. Powell becomes more of a fairytale monster than a common criminal, and woodland creatures bear witness to the children’s flight. Finally, when the children land on the doorstep of tough-but-fair orphan collector Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) it turns into a morality play as she wins a tense standoff against Powell and hustles her band of children through the ensuing lynch mob like a mother duck.
It’s difficult to decide what to make of the full picture. It’s always subtly unexpected; you think Powell will be a perfect killer, Hannibal Lecter style, but instead he’s a little goofy, impatient, and not very good at this serial killing business when you get right down to it. He’s mean but not brilliant. The fantastic standoff scene between Miss Cooper and the murderous preacher ends with both a bang and a whimper; he runs shrieking into her barn and is an easy catch for the state troopers in the morning. When another movie might end there, this one produces an extended coda with a lynch mob ... which misses its prey. It’s definitely a movie that tells its own story in its own way with no particular care for how movies are traditionally made.
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER serves as a sad catalog of ways that adults can fail children. Until the redoubtable — and frankly unbelievable — Miss Cooper in the third act, every adult in the movie completely sucks at adulting in disturbingly realistic ways. They’re venial crazy-ass murderers, passive victims who can’t or won’t protect their children, complacent townies who only see what they expect to see, well meaning drunks, fathers who in “providing” for their kids do stupid shit like robbing banks — there’s even a woman who’s kind enough to give out food to hungry children but sternly tells them they can only have one raw potato apiece. It’s not the kind of movie where you yell at the kids on screen to tell an adult what’s going on; it’s the kind where you have nightmares later about how powerless childhood actually feels to children.
Willa, particularly, is an interesting study in Failure to Adult. She’s a lamb eager for slaughter; she seems dazed and desperate for direction which of course she finds in the charismatic Powell. His destruction of her begins long before her murder — on their wedding night when she comes to bed with natural sexual expectations he stands her in front of a mirror and psychologically dismantles her with shame and guilt. After that, she becomes his creature utterly and participates in his religious services in a feverish, claustrophobic scene lit by torches that dominate the frame and seem poised to light everybody on fire. She howls and shrieks that she drove her first husband to bank robbery and murder with her vanity and frivolity. When she finally realizes that John was telling the truth about Powell’s search for the hidden money, she goes to Powell perhaps intending to confront him. However, she ends up essentially inviting him to murder her in a truly disturbing scene in their bedroom, which has the odd geometry of a chapel. She lies in bed with her arms folded, waiting for him to cut her throat like a sacrifice. My husband and I were once traumatized by a scene in a nature documentary where some sort of antelope chased by a predator just gave up and laid down in the grass to wait for the end; it still bothers me to think about it.
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Adults are always telling children how great they have it and how awesome childhood is and that they ought to be enjoying it while it lasts. That’s a lie and a half — there are great things about being a kid but it’s also a time in your life where you’re utterly powerless, completely at the mercy of people who you hope have your best interests at heart, and live in a world you only barely understand. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a film that really gets that. It’s about keeping secrets, running away from frightening things, and looking for safe havens. It’s weird and beautiful and a lot like a nightmare and if you haven’t seen it you’ve left a hole in your movie watching.
Sara Shiver McBride is qualified to neither speak nor write about film, but once lost on Jeopardy. She makes up one half of the podcast team of DAY DRINKING WITH SARA AND ALEXIS.