Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega on The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter is oddly anachronistic and eerily modern. Not surprisingly it was a critical and commercial failure upon its release. Perhaps it was because, as Michael Atkinson claims in the Village Voice, the film was “out of synch with American postwar sensibilities.” Perhaps Laughton’s vision of the heart of America, that beloved countryside often depicted as an untarnished small community heaven, was simply too earnest and disturbing for audiences trained in swallowing Capra’s happy-go-lucky romantic dramas. Evil and deviance had long existed within the realm of the American film genres but almost always as belonging to the other side of the law, in those tales of cities ruled by crime, greed, and gunfire. Charles Laughton’s opera prima (and only directorial effort) rewinds into the Depression era, weaving a universe located somewhere amongst the low-contrast canvases of German Expressionism, the morality plays of Frank Capra, the Beats’ sagas of visceral excess across America’s vastness, an ethnographic study of the Southern fauna, and the ever-present fear for that psychotic other who may strike anytime/anywhere that the collective U.S. imagination seems to stubbornly retain in its multiple fields of cultural production throughout the 20th century.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a preacher with an exclusive hate/love contract with the Lord, cruises secondary roads, leaving dozens of women’s corpses behind, until he stumbles across Ben Harper while in prison for a minor theft offense. Harper killed two men and stuffed his loot, $10,000, inside his little daughter’s doll. Only the five-year-old Pearl and her elder brother, Billy, know where Harper hid the money. Before being executed, Harper reveals to Powell his secret while sleeping, offering the ruthless preacher all the necessary clues to track down his family and the money, except for one: the $10,000 hide-out. As soon as he is released from prison, Powell directs his terrorizing path to the Harper family’s home, allures Harper’s widow into marriage and traces a fast and violence-ridden route to convince the children to unveil where their father hid the treasure.
Sprinkled with bits of Americana, from folk songs to traditional lullabies, Laughton manages to add a surplus of horrific imagery to the hunger-mediated milieu he chronicles by centering the audiovisual and narrative structure of the story in Powell’s dark and almighty presence. Mitchum’s black-clad enormity and his magnified shadow centrifugally dominate the frame and foreclose any route of escape until Lillian Gish’s rifle and her obnoxious larynx appear out of the blue to save the children and offer a final sermon that looks past the 1930s and signals a better future land: “Children are the strongest. They abide and they endure.” If Gish satisfies the cinephiles’ voracity to deploy their archival knowledge of film history by means of her emblematic presence in D. W. Griffith’s master narratives, Mitchum’s mobilizes that other fringe space several actors have carved far beyond the straightforward codes of Hollywood’s mainstream production through their successive whimsical screen personae. From Christopher Walken to Elliott Gould to Marlon Brando to early De Niro and Pacino, these actors re-defined the contours of the experimental dimension of Hollywood narrative cinema by transforming a series of regimented generic conventions into excessive powerhouses of performative brilliance.
In fact, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear linked the original J. Lee Thompson film from 1962, also starring Mitchum as a disturbed rapist named Max Cody, with The Night of the Hunter through the acting flexibility of the post-1970 Robert Mitchum of American cinema, De Niro, and the inscription of Cody’s particular code of justice in the very skin of his body through a mosaic of telling tattoos à la Harry Powell. Needless to say that through the prism of The Night of the Hunter, Memento seems to be a hyper-calculated but emotionally void exercise in style of how to make a thriller, and Guy Pearce gives the impression of being a postmodern monad who has lost a grip of the dividing line between hate and love that Harry Powell masters so shrewdly.
Somehow Scorsese’s displacement of Powell’s unscrupulous code into the modern milieu of Cape Fear failed to capture the sinister ethics of Night of the Hunter by converting Laughton’s monster vs. children morality tale into a sexual game gone havoc, opposing a new-age Lolita (Juliette Lewis) with De Niro’s assortment of over-the-top depraved poses. In fact, Scorsese’s tour de force obsessively draws towards the history of film itself while diagonally commenting upon the flaws of the American judiciary system. Laughton, for his part, excavated deep into the idyllic universe of the It’s a Wonderful Life species to explore the contours of one of its perverse alternate universes. Borrowing the expressive conventions of chiaroscuro lighting characteristic of German Expressionism to directly parallel Powell’s disturbed psyche, he offered an insight into that other America the classical Hollywood narrative had kept in the closet. For Harry Powell embodies the flipside of the “work hard, become rich and you shall be saved since the Lord will be with you” pioneer ethical code. In a countryside ravaged by rampant poverty, where religious zealotry has turned into outright serial hunting of women and money, only in the end does Laughton seem to concede and save the children, conforming to the dominant dictates of Hollywood’s narrative apparatus. The children do indeed endure; Powell is predictably punished.
Perhaps The Night of the Hunter epitomizes the ideological limits a film text must not trespass if dealing with children and aiming to be minimally productive in an ultimately economic-driven industry such as filmmaking. Only exceptionally, like in Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Woo’s Face/Off, to cite two examples, has a murdered child managed to jump from the written page onto the screen. Whether Laughton was conditioned by this taboo seems utterly insignificant today. What matters is that one way or another, The Night of the Hunter seems to shift gears in its last third and offer us a return to that idyllic America its director had shred to pieces from the very opening scene of the film, when a dead female corpse salutes us from inside a barn only to be followed by Powell’s almighty appearance onscreen, speaking to the Lord. Despite the link between the murdered body and Powell Laughton explicitly performs, the camera is in love with Mitchum and whoever he is about to be from his very introduction. So are we. It might be a love we despise but one we cannot easily run away from. This is the very artistic gesture cult fabric is made of: incongruously and eccentric with the rest of cultural discourses that surround it, the cult object is notoriously dismissed in its contemporaneity and barely survives in the margins of the socio-cultural field only to be re-discovered decades later and elevated to an altar of artistic excellence. Harry Powell belongs to this Olympus. And he shall remain, “leaning on the everlasting arm.” Amen.