“A preacher with a vicious mission marries a widow in order to discover the location of 10,000 dollars her husband hid from her son.”
Directed By: Charles Laughton Rating: Approved, 93 min
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
You will not know evil when you see it. It will walk down the lane in the dusk, the hems of its pants dusty, tall and straight and proud against the skyline between two shadows of a fence, whistling. While you sit in your room it will pause at the border of your yard and lean against the fencepost. It might begin to sing. From your window you’ll look out at the figure where he stands, faceless beneath the brim of his hat’s shadow, and tell yourself its just a traveler stopping by. It’s a wanderer, leaning to rest and your soul will sit uneasily. Small greeds rattle like marbles on the floor of your heart. It feels as if this man had come to collect a debt that you’d forgotten to pay. You look out the window again. You ease. The man is gone. You swore he had your face.
Night of the Hunter begins with a lullaby and a story about good men, and evil men, the glory of lilies and and the vanity of kings. Children’s faces float in starlight. Now we look down on children, in a field, playing hide and seek. A boy closes his eyes and his friends scatter. He opens the cellar door where his friends must be hiding, but none of them are there. Instead there is the body of a woman. In the wedge of light fanning down the stairs, the woman’s leg – modest in a stocking slightly too loose – poses a question. Why did evil befall her? We meet the Preacher, Harry Powell. He sits in his car chiding God, his pose as rigid as a pew back, dressed in a black coat clean and grim, his vest buttoned, a bow tie on his neck, a hat set firmly on his brow, and across his knuckles, clenched on the wheel, the story of mankind written in ink: Hate and Love. He comes with a smile and a story. He comes with damnation and deliverance. He comes with a song and a whistle, and a slow, funeral tread.
The Preacher wanders the small towns of Depression-Era America, killing widows. He believes God has mantled him with the authority to snuff out the more wicked examples of the meaner sex. He keeps his lust at his heels, like a collared mastiff, to sniff out the deepest offenders. In an early scene he sits at a burlesque show where a woman in a silver sequined dress flickers on stage like a candle flame. Hate and desire struggle in his face like two locked hands, fingers clenched, but before he can do anything, he’s thrown in prison for stealing a car.
In prison, the Preacher meets a man who has robbed a bank and hidden the money where only his children, John and Pearl Harper, can find it. He leaves them the money and makes them swear not to tell anyone about its location, not even their mother, who he knows is a fool. Harper takes his secret to the grave but the Preacher follows the news of the man’s death back to a sleepy little town and Willa, Harper’s widow, who can barely manage to take care of John and Pearl. Before the Preacher even arrives, John has no need for a father. He has a soul as wide and calm as a harbor and in it he can accommodate massive injuries and losses that adults find hard to bear. When he and Pearl pass by the ice cream shop where his mother works, and she waves him on from the window, not wanting to see them, he accepts this and then hides what his mother does from Pearl. He never questions the dignity of his father’s decision to rob the bank even when the other children begin to mock the Harpers with songs about the hangman. People might accept remorse or shame in a son for his convict father – never pride. But John doesn’t entertain the idea of trading his loyalty to his father for some cheaper, easier coinage.
When Harry Powell arrives, neat and strong and admired, John Harper recognizes him for what he is and what he wants and between the man who is a monster and the boy who must be a man arises a deadly and silent struggle for trust and power over the Harper household and the town itself. The Preacher marries Willa Harper and John no longer has a mother who trusts him. Willa, unsure if her vain shopping projects caused her husband to rob the bank, and unwilling to examine the reasons, wants a man who can save her. She has no moral strength. The Preacher’s youth and strength and authority convinces her she can swoon into salvation beside him in the bed, and since guilt has rotted through her heart, she trades her soul for anything the Preacher tells her to be. The heart acts like a weight to measure against a deed on the scales of justice but the soul of a guilty man or woman has the weight of a cork and their actions have no measure. Every act appears absolutely good or evil, it doesn’t matter, because the act always outweighs the heart and the measurement is imaginary. John and the Preacher vie next for Pearl’s trust, who can’t help but see the double image of her father in straight masculine cut of the Preacher’s suit. The two wage a domestic war for the Harper household, one wanting the money, the other wanting to keep his promise to his father.
At first glance, I misjudged the proportions of this film. I thought I recognized in the story the cut of a simple morality tale: a wandering monster named Harry Powell seduces a young widow in order to find the money her husband stole. I thought he would try to coax the secret out of the children and perhaps use their mother to threaten them. I expected John Harper to save his mother, keep or recover the money, and for Preacher Harry Powell to end up in chains. In other words, I thought I’d walked into a town I recognized from many 1940’s films. It’s a good town, though complacent, and its nice to visit even when you know its not real.
The people who live in that town – be it around the corner, or just down the road, or a couple years ago when the light had a color like amber – enjoy their simple pleasures. They like to sit on porches and note the way the dust rolls off the street in the evening and fills with the gold light. In the afternoon the scent of caramelizing sugar hangs heavy over the street and the people walking home at noon for a glass of milk and a slice of bread might stop in the post office to say hello. At night, coming home from work, they linger around the lit glass booths that the popcorn vendors wheel out each sunset, to smell the kernels roasting over the flames. The shrewd woman who spins the cumulus clouds of cotton candy on rolled wands of newsprint knows everyone by name. I didn’t expect to find anything new or real in this film or this town and in a way, I was correct. When I saw Willa Harper, her throat cut, pale and languid on the river bottom and her hair dappling the current like sunlight, I knew I’d found something far older. Night opens her wings and a darkness falls over the town. All the kind adults who smell of sugar and sweat through the collars of their shirts, who should have helped those children, lie drunk and asleep, or blind an uncaring, while the children escape the Preacher on a rowboat. They are alone now, in a Biblical darkness. The sickle moon hangs low over the fields. On the bank, the cat tales tremble and a wind blows their husks across the water. They find myself in a land as old as myth.
The evil of the film and the Preacher both have a deceptive lack of depth to them, a coppery flatness like the painted eyes of a serpent that makes you misjudge when you first see it. When I met the Preacher I felt the familiar disappointment of meeting a one sided villain and for the most part, I gave myself up to the film, meaning to enjoy it but never expecting to feel troubled. I made the mistake of concluding that from lack of depth a lack of danger followed but the Preacher is a puddle you could drown in and the buildings of the town have a carnival slant to them because they’re so close to resembling the houses of our own sleepy villages. The Preacher only has a dangerous flatness to him because people trust flatness. On a flat postcard, you can draw a picture of a happy population, but a flatness also might taper to the edge of a mirror or the point on a shard of glass. If the Preacher were here right now, which he might be, out of sight, hiding in a teacup, or unseen in the inch wide shadows of the drapes, he would smile at me because he fooled me just as he fooled everyone else. I ran my finger across his surface, and finding him smooth, I turned my back on him.
The Preacher might be one of the most masterful visions of evil in film because standing at six feet and weighing two hundred pounds, there’s nothing there to put your finger on except an unease that lingers. In each scene I was only sure that I wasn’t looking at him in the proper light. He changes shape and shade like a chameleon of thought. The more perspectives trained on the Preacher, the harder he becomes to see, like a mirror heliographing beneath the glare of too many lights. He scatters beneath the scrutiny of too many perspectives.
When he murders Willa Harper, you learn that killing does not excite the Preacher as much as what comes before. He savors what leads up to the woman’s leg – modest in a stocking slightly too loose – revealed in the wedge of light falling down the stairs. The deed itself has the value of a token amusement, a pleasure as cheap and quick and sharp as the knife he can make dart out of his pocket like a steel swallow. Willa lies in bed. She knows he only marries her for her hidden money, that he’s been wheedling and pressing the location of it from her children, that he would kill them to find it. She describes exactly what he is and what he’s doing and as she peels back his layers, he lifts a hand like an actor in front of a crowd, or a man playing actor in front of the mirror. He’s an act. An empty performance on a dark stage, but people watch because they’re afraid of the shadows in the corners. Despite knowing what he is, despite that he pulls a knife from his pocket, Willa believes that God brought him to her to clean her. Her soul is so weightless the Preacher could blow it from his palm like a dusting of dandelion seed. Then and only then will he kill her. Without anything to measure it by, the world has no weight to Willa, no rules and no sense and the other thought she can grasp is that she’s on the right track. In the choice between a lie and oblivion, people might choose the lie.
Night of the Hunter draws a diagram of evil with the perspectives of the various people who encounter the Preacher. You learn there are no perspectives from which to view the Preacher properly because he only reflects the faces looking at him. He is the sum of the small greeds, petty vanities, and familiar flaws found in most people. He has an ear always on the floor of their hearts and he can seek out the pressures of their guilts the way you can find a creak in the staircase. The more the good people believe in the poster image of their town, the more they believe the Preacher is a good man, because he resembles them. The Preacher doesn’t have to act. He just smiles and leans and exerts a force like gravity that coaxes evil thoughts from people like stones that have gather moss waiting to fall down a slope.
At a certain point you realize that the force of evil that threatens the children has lain in wait in the town all along, and in all towns. In a sense, the Preacher has always been there, or always been coming and going and he hides in the eaves of small town attics, dime store greeds, and the lust that flares on the tips of men’s fingers as they lean against the lampposts at dusk. He takes shelter in the disdain of the woman who makes the candy, and the bottle of the man who should have been an uncle to John Harper. In each of their failings he is present. He’s like a sea that hides in the puddles that lie in the ruts of small town roads, where the moon reflects. The film reminds us that evil doesn’t normally visit towns – it cools in cellars and slinks beneath porches like dogs at noon, to gnaw on old bones. We inherit the lies of the people we live because we share the desire to look at ourselves and see what is good. Where there is a pride in the image of a community, there is a people who have built a false floor together to hide their weaker natures.
By the end of the film, you see familiar faces, once kind, now taught and brutal in torchlight, calling for blood. The candy woman insults her husband’s impotence in public. The Preacher himself is lighter than a cobweb in the mind of man. If you struck him you would hear a hollow boom. If you met him on the road, the sun might cut through him as easily as a plume of road dust. You would hear the wind whistling through his silhouette. The Preacher isn’t a new character and he’s not an actor – he is a spot that stains every mind and is ignored equally by everyone. The evil inhabits the body of the Preacher the way the wind fills a curtain at night. When America was young, the Preacher’s strode the newly cut lanes, and you could see his shadow on the skyline, hear him whistling, his horse’s reigns creaking.
John Harper and the Widow are the two only characters who can match the Preacher. John is a child but he is young and brave. He will protect his dignity and the dignity of his sister without question or pause. Adults consider dignity a part of themselves – a resident in their soul that dwindles as they age, and cowers from the draft in the eaves. Children are their own dignity. John finds a place for he and his sister to take refuge in the warm and scoured kitchen of the Widow.
The Widow too can match the evil of the Preacher because she has an unfailing sense of truth. She has a simple stock of weapons but they’re the only weapons she knows, and she will die or protect innocence. She is shrewd without being bitter. She knows weakness because she recognizes her own and when she speaks of the foolishness of young girls she only neglects to mention herself out of a wry modesty. She offers children small kindnesses as warm and recognizable as apples. Few characters have ever made me feel as safe, on screen, as the Widow did. She possesses dignity as still as a shadow at dusk, a shotgun raised slightly, while upstairs, children sleep uneasily on the floor their parents built. Outside, two people begin to sing. The floor creaks.
The Bottom Line: A masterful reflection on small town evil. It tells a slightly supernatural legend, that belongs with To Kill a Mockingbird in the annals of classic American tales.
My Score: 9.0