“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” quotes Lillian Gish at the very beginning of Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter. This text is immediately contrasted with another one: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
The Night of the Hunter pits two that are pure in heart, two of the little children to whom the Lord says belongs the kingdom of heaven, against one who is a false prophet, a ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is “Preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), an outwardly pious predator whose glibly superficial moralizing is epitomized by an infantile hand-play in support of which the words LOVE and HATE have been tattooed across his knuckles.
Poor Shelley Winters, one of a long line of moneyed widows that Powell preys upon, is no match for this creature of evil; but her young son John (Billy Chapin) isn’t blinded by adult social expectations or wayward passions, and with his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) he faces a nightmare gauntlet with Powell an unstoppable fairy-tale monster relentlessly tracking them.
Gish’s character is Rachel Cooper, a pious, no-nonsense old woman who runs an orphanage, and who provides an undistorted counterpoint to Powell’s diseased religiosity. (Country singer Anthony Smith might have been speaking about her when he sang, “She got a Bible, she’s born again / She got a shotgun, she ain’t afraid of sin…”) Yet in an eerie way even Mrs. Cooper seems to respond in some way to Powell, to acknowledge some sort of kinship. Does she feel the pull of his hypnotic spell? Or does she recognize in his evil some twisted reflection of truth?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.