The dark preacher, with hate tattooed across his left knuckles and love across his right, has become an iconic figure in pop culture, even if you don’t know the source.
“Night Of The Hunter” had been on my to-watch list for some time, and thanks to Air New Zealand’s extensive in-flight movie menu, I had the pleasure of watching it recently as I flew to London.
It’s a film filled with dysfunctional adults. In fact, every adult character in the film is either evil, impotent or blinded by religious devotion, particularly the men.
At the time of the film’s release in 1955, I imagine it was quite a shocking idea to have a preacher who was also a serial killer. The monster inside had previously been relegated to the cartoon figures – the aliens from another world, the floridly insane, the monster creations like Frankenstein’s (who, ironically, was extremely sympathetic).
The only innocent characters in this film are the children, and they serve as a metaphor. Paraphrasing from Mike & The Mechanics (high-brow culture there, I know), we’re born into this world as open as an empty cup. And then we start to get filled up with things.
The world of “Night Of The Hunter” is one preoccupied and controlled by Christianity. The chief villain is a preacher, Harry Powell, who uses his faith as a mask to manipulate others as he chases after money. His wife is obsessed with her own sinfulness, and desperate for redemption in the eyes of God, despite the fact that she has done nothing wrong herself. The proprietor of the local diner is full of Biblical platitudes, and convinced that sex is dirty.
Even the most sympathetic character, the matriarch of a makeshift orphanage played by silent era legend Lillian Gish, is equally preoccupied with Bible stories.
Men don’t fare too well in this film. Women are constantly disappointed by them, because they don’t fit the ideal of heroism and piety as displayed in the Bible through figures such as Moses (who, ironically, never existed). They’re toothless wonders that rely upon the bottle as a solution for everything, such as the aforementioned diner proprietor’s son. They’re doom-bound criminals, such as Ben Harper, who attracts the attention of our preacher earlier in the piece when they share a prison cell together.
Or they are children. Our hero really is John, a boy who protects his boy sister against the evil preacher and protects the memory of his dead criminal father. At the end of the film, he seems to have developed what one can only imagine to be an unhealthy, incestuous relationship with his foster mother, Rachel Cooper.
What are we to make of this?
The film is based on a novel, and the only film to be directed by screen legend Charles Laughton, a gay man. Was he being ironic? Or was he himself caught up in the idea that women are a slave to men and can only redeem themselves by confessing to their base desires (for sex, chiefly) and renouncing them?
One of the orphans, Ruth, confesses tearfully to Rachel towards the end that she has been lying – her weekly music lessons have in fact been excuses for her to cavort with boys, portrayed to us as lecherous, but probably themselves the stuff of fantasy for Laughton and anyone compiling a twink pinup magazine today.
Rachel is sympathetic to Ruth’s pain, not threatening her with violence (as she does elsewhere in the film when children do not conform) and instead comforts her, saying that she was looking for love in the only way she knew how, albeit twisted.
The past is a foreign country indeed, and “Night Of The Hunter” is a nightmarish window into a world controlled by religious piety. Those who are imprisoned by it are equally sad as those who use such an environment to victimise others, such as the sociopathic preacher, played with career-winning gusto by Robert Mitchum.
Beautifully photographed in noir style, it’s an unmissable and briskly surreal film.
It would take another decade before society began to realise that life outside of Biblical constraints was possible, and didn’t necessarily have to end in greed, iniquity, and death.
But the haunting images from “Night Of The Hunter” will stay with you no matter how you identify with the history.