Preachers, Children, and The Great Depression: The Night of the Hunter

Set in the years of the Great Depression, the atmosphere is filled with tragedy, many frustrated with the ongoing conditions, forced upon desperation to attain a better life. Amongst the backdrop are the influenced of delusion and misconstrue, led by the words of the lord, murdering and stealing in the hopes of a much larger goal — to wipe the world clean. Such a period in time would find an escalation of sin, life becomes far too unbearable for some to endure a life of high morals, but along such a trend is a height of vulnerability, a sense of guilt in the Christian souls that fill the traditional rural American backdrop, hearing the words of the preacher would shine an awareness of their ill souls and hope for personal salvations.


Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a man who claims to be of religious faith, markets to the world as a profound preacher, spoken to by the lord in attending his vengeful duties, wiping the world clean little by little — surely such a figure influenced the creation of Se7en’s (1995) John Doe. It seemed like fate under his eyes that he stumbles upon a desperate criminal, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), in a cell as he slyly attempts to expose his secrets of the hidden stash of money whilst in his babbling sleep. Despite Harper convicted and sentenced of his crimes, under our eyes, he reveals to be the desperate modern hero, a man who would go to great lengths to ensure the strength of his family, during a time of poverty and scarceness, sickened by the sight of famished and unsheltered children, ensuring that his own would not suffer the same fate.

Powell, committed and delusional, proceeds in his task to attain that large sum of $10,000, knowing that the key to his success lies somewhere within the grieving family. His arrival would come as a both a shock and a blessing for the widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), whom since her husband’s conviction have carried a heavy burden, a guilt of the unfounded whereabouts of the stolen money, wanting it only to be returned and free them from such tainted temptations. The assuring words of Powell however would lift her from such a burden, weaving his way slowly and fitting himself into the gaping hole present in the Harper family, whose darker intentions become clearer to the eyes of young John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) when it is already too late.


One can see the immediate influence left by Powell in the heart of this small town, where much of its residents have taken with great admiration, the words of this theatrically spoken preacher, notably through Willa as she perceives his inclusion to her life as an opportunity of soulful cleanse rather than a partner for shared lustful romantics. She becomes a muse of his preachings, a vector that would gather and transform the community into living the desired philosophy of the charismatic preacher. It is a piece of the film that may not call loudly in the narrative’s primary intentions, but it becomes critical in the construction of its atmosphere, and to emphasise the themes that surround Pearl and John’s story.

As rage fuels within Powell as the children remains resistive in unlocking their secrets, strange events befall upon this quiet town, danger lingers closer as Willa becomes eliminated from the family formula, leaving the children with an obsessed and limitless father figure that has no intentions of maintaining their comfort and ease — despite the assumptions of some members of the community. It is here that director, Charles Laughton, builds upon a claustrophobic sense of tension that refuses to easily relieve itself, swallowing the audience and its two children slowly as his persistence firmly maintains and his wrath begin to arouse. As soon as they are able to, the two children find themselves temporarily free from his grips, embarking via a small boat in their local river downstream that would lead them to only god knows where, confirming only that they would be far from him.


One of the film’s most chilling sequences is found in the middle of their journey, a rest stop at an isolated barn, intending upon rest, only to be closely trailed by the frightening silhouette of Powell on a horse, singing with a low tremble “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. John shocked by the fact that his persistence surpasses the body’s need to rest, swiftly back on the boat and travelling them further downstream. It is a scene that would stay with us due to its simple but haunting imagery, a crowning moment in defining the film’s sense of horror. It was here that I was reminded that this is a figure who is in search to instil harm on young children, destroying their innocence. It is a concept that is surely bold at the time of its release, and though compared to now, it is handled upon a manner that is tamed, nevertheless the impact could still be felt.

The children would soon find themselves comfortably settled at the end of the river, adopted by the welcoming arms of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), along with three others that she has previously taken into her home; she would state later of the death of her son, quite possibly due to the suffocating conditions of Great Depression. Cooper would act as the key contrast to the corrupt Powell, highlighting an equal sense of commitment to Powell, but all driven for the act of goodness and nurture, there is no insidious agenda to her intentions with the children, wanting only for them to endure such a difficult period and keep them within the morally virtuous path. It all builds upon to a final showdown between Cooper and Powell, an outcome that would shape the film’s lasting tone and message, handled in a manner that may not be particularly executed with masterclass precision, but its intentions are loudly clear.


From the film’s noir inspired visuals to the dominating performance from Robert Mitchum as the greed thirsty preacher, The Night of the Hunter is a true classic, one that may not be entirely perfect in its form and core, but an aesthetic that is unshakeable once viewed upon, a film that I cannot seem to detach from year after year, a revisit that seems crucial especially during this month of celebrated horror.


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