J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

The Night of the Hunter

Posted by J on January 31, 2011

It’s possible that The Night of the Hunter is the best film ever made.  That’s such a contentious claim, we know.  But as a midwestern Americans, we understand it very well, and thematically and aesthetically it fits the current accepted criteria for “great movie.”  So let’s just agree to call it one of the best yet made.

There is a lot of America in the movie, past and present.  A psychopath who disguises himself as a preacher, Harry Powell, who seems to believe that he is doing the Lord’s work, attacks and robs widows.  He does this by seducing them first with his God talk.  Thrown in jail for stealing a car, Powell learns of $10,000 in stolen cash from Ben Harper, a fellow prisoner who, the day after he tells Powell about the money, is executed for murder.  Harper has a wife and two children.  This is a great opportunity for Powell. Once released from jail, he heads to the Harper homestead.

The problem is that no one knows where the money is, except for Harper’s two children, John and Pearl.  The battle is on between Powell and the children.  Powell first seduces the townsfolk with a religious story about the battle between “Love” and “Hate.” words he has written on the knuckles of his left and right hands.  He then seduces Mrs. Harper and marries her.  For the kids, this is a big problem.  Their new stepdad is a psychopath.  For Mrs. Harper, now Mrs. Powell, it is a wild descent into being brainwashed by a misogynist.  She sides with Powell, and against her children, while believing that sex is an unclean abomination.

What we have described so far is a plotline that we tend to avoid.  We don’t enjoy being around psychopaths in reality, and we don’t like watching them on screen, especially those who try to torment children.  If this movie had been made anytime between the 1970s and today, it would’ve been a disaster. It most likely would’ve been a horror film strictly about a creep who chases children.  But this movie veers, in its third act, upwards to another level.  By doing so, it becomes a kind of Midwestern fairy tale — the old kind of fairy tale, like the stories of Brothers Grimm, where the bad guys are really maniacs who murder for pleasure.

The movie depicts the faults and virtues of the Midwest.  Granted, the faults of the Midwest and South have been the feature of many a film.    There have been so many idiotic or psychopathic rednecks in the last forty years of movies that we get really defensive about the depiction of our native region.  And Harry Powell may be the ultimate Midwestern psychopath. He talks to God and deceives all of the townsfolk, who believe him to be an honorable man of God.  But Powell’s character is balanced by another’s — whose we won’t say — who enters the third act and introduces hope into the story.  The movie does not treat Christianity as if it is a religion of hucksters and brainwashed fools.  It is quite honest about the possibilities of proclaimed Christians.  Powell, who sings “Leaning on Jesus,” is a devil in disguise, the townsfolk are naive fools who eventually form a lawless mob, but others are genuine Christians in word and practice.

The idea of Huck Finn is also attacked in this movie. John Harper, probably 8 years old, is a kind of Huck Finn, a would-be orphan who floats down the river.  But John is forced into playing Huck Finn by foolish and sinister adults.  And in the end, he is the anti-Huck Finn who needs reforming from a charitable Aunt Polly.  John’s fatherlessness is a major problem, and his substitute father (Powell) is an even bigger one.  The idea that he will be taught — via the story of the baby Moses — is that Christian doctrine provides the ultimate Father.

We like movies that have a touch of the mythical.  The Night of the Hunter has that.  It is a morality tale that taps into primal feelings and makes you root hard for the children and against Powell.  And it mythologically elevates Middle America.  Since this is one of a handful of movies that do that for our beloved, native land, for us, it is special.


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