THEY ABIDE - Abby Olcese
Late in Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, the murderous preacher Harry Powell (indelibly played by Robert Mitchum), stands outside the home of Rachel Cooper (portrayed by Lillian Gish), an elderly widow who’s fostering the two kids Harry has spent the film hunting down. Rachel is inside with a shotgun, protecting the children, and Harry is waiting for the right moment to strike.
As he waits, Harry begins singing the hymn that has become his calling card, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” He’s singing low and loud; a deliberate, menacing taunt. But during his song, something interesting happens. Rachel begins singing along, in harmony. Suddenly, this shared piece of religious language takes on a dual meaning. Harry is using it to threaten. Rachel is using it for reassurance.
This moment of dichotomy between the villainous Harry, and Rachel, whose reserves of strength are drawn from her faith and her love for others, communicates what makes The Night of the Hunter such a great film, and what makes it an important film to watch right now, when the call to show radical love to others seems louder than it’s ever been. The Night of the Hunter makes visionary use of cinematic craft to display the misguided and corrupt elements of faith used to hurt vulnerable people. What’s really unusual, however, is the comparison between those corrupt elements of faith and the open, affirming and truly loving aspects of faith that can heal damage and, ultimately, defeat evil.
In the film, Mitchum’s Harry Powell is a corrupt traveling preacher with a warped, repressed, and hypocritical code of beliefs. He makes his money by marrying widows in various towns, killing them and taking their cash. At the beginning of the film, he has already killed so many that he has lost count.
While in jail for car theft, Harry meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who’s sentenced to hang for killing two men during a bank robbery. Ben still has the loot, but has hidden it somewhere in his house. Knowing Ben leaves behind a wife and two kids, Harry smells a payday.
As soon as Ben is executed and Harry is released from jail, Harry tracks down Ben’s family, claiming to be on a spiritual mission. He uses his natural charm and promises of salvation to win over the townspeople and marry—then murder—Ben’s guilt-ridden widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He then works on coercing the whereabouts of the stolen money from the two children, John and Pearl, through fear and abuse.
The kids escape from Harry and take to the river, eventually finding refuge with Gish’s Rachel and her gaggle of foster children. She helps John and Pearl recover from their traumas, and slowly regain their trust in adults, but their peace is short-lived. Harry follows in hot pursuit, leading to a suspense-filled showdown with Rachel.
It’s hard to watch The Night of the Hunter without viewing it through the very personal lens of its director, Charles Laughton. Laughton was drawn to the material because of its themes of religious hypocrisy. According to Simon Callow, the wonderful English actor, and Laughton’s biographer, as a closeted gay man, Laughton believed the church was responsible for his need to keep his sexuality a secret.
But The Night of the Hunter isn’t a diatribe against faith or religion. Rather, it’s an examination of two different kinds of faith; the kind of loud, hate and fear-driven faith that too often rules our public discourse, and the compassion-driven faith that represents belief at its finest. Laughton explores this difference through a theme that resonated strongly with his experiences of sexual repression: love—either a fear of it, a desire for it, or a devotion to it, was informed by religion in nearly all cases.
Harry’s faith is informed by a hatred of “perversion,” which essentially takes on any form of sexual desire. To him, makeup and perfume are satanic temptations, women’s bodies are for childbearing only, and man’s desire for sex is unholy and animalistic. Willa, the widow he marries, seeks a redemptive love that will allow her to move on from her husband’s crimes. She thinks she’s found it in Harry, but this proves to be a fatal mistake, one she begins to realize on their wedding night when she approaches him affectionately, and he aggressively rebuffs her advances.
To Rachel, however, love is not perverted. It’s natural and necessary, even holy. When her teenage ward, Ruby, becomes smitten with Harry and, after tipping him off to John and Pearl’s location, tearfully confesses her actions, Rachel doesn’t shame her. Instead, she tells her, “You were looking for love, Ruby, the only foolish way you knew how. We all need love.”
Rachel, like Harry, quotes Bible verses. But unlike him, instead of quoting damning verses out of context, Rachel tells the kids stories of Moses in the bulrushes, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the run from King Herod, stories of endangered children who persevere. It’s her message of love to her troubled young brood: with the right support system, children can survive the direst of situations, and may even grow up to change the world.
These stark differences between Harry and Rachel are expressed not only in the behavior of the characters, but through the film’s visual language. The first half of the film, in which Harry courts and kills Willa, and terrorizes the children, is strongly influenced by German Expressionist film, with its sharp angles and play between light and shadow. It evokes a constant, creepy sense of menace.
Harry is also frequently portrayed in a manner that evokes classic cinema monsters. When John first sees Harry, he appears shadow first, as a ghoulish, exaggerated silhouette cast across a wall. A later scene, in which Harry leans over Willa with a knife, brings to mind images of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Harry even resembles Frankenstein’s Monster at one point, as he chases the children up a set of stairs, arms outstretched, making guttural groans.
Part of the reasoning behind these choices is that most of The Night of the Hunter is told from a child’s perspective, showing Harry as a literal bogeyman. But it also reinforces the idea that he represents the threat of belief based in hatred that is every bit as scary as supernatural creatures. Scarier, even, since this threat Harry represents is very real.
Compare this with the idyll of Rachel’s farm, with its brightly-lit house and abundant garden, accompanied by a charming musical score. Rachel herself is presented using maternal images, looking like a mother goose in her long skirt, leaning forward, with children perpetually trailing behind. It evokes feelings of calm, love and care. Rachel’s home is a place where everyone is welcome, no matter where they’ve come from, or what their needs may be.
The Night of the Hunter ends with Harry arrested and sentenced for his crimes, an angry crowd—made up of those same townspeople Harry charmed early on—baying for blood, and Rachel quietly taking the children home from the courthouse to enjoy a peaceful Christmas together. Love has triumphed over evil, and brought Harry’s duplicitous nature to light.
It’s a powerful message, particularly when every day the news seems to bring new threats against marginalized people. It’s easy to feel like Harry Powell has taken over the world.
But The Night of the Hunter reminds us that people like Harry, ultimately, don’t hold the power. They’re just the loudest ones in the room. There are many more unrecognized, courageous people in the background, like Rachel, who are slowly but surely making the world a better place. Regardless of faith tradition, Rachel is the person we are all called to be more like, in any way we can; nurturing, selfless, and fiercely protective of those we love.
In the end, it doesn’t take much to frighten Harry away. Shortly after he stands singing outside her house, a single shotgun blast from Rachel sends Harry running, howling, across the yard to hide in the barn. It’s going to take more than that to reverse painful policy changes and bigoted political leadership. But The Night of the Hunter still serves to remind us all that it’s always possible for courageous, radical love to transcend the bullies.
Abby Olcese is a freelance writer, passionate about the intersection of faith, social justice and popular culture. She lives in Kansas. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @indieabby88.