The Night of the Hunter is part of a screening series and art exhibition put on in collaboration with the Monte Clark Gallery that explores the intersections between visual art and cinema. The event takes its name, Traces That Resemble Us, from a quotation by Jean-Luc Godard, who claimed that in cinema, traces of former images are found in the images that follow. According to Godard, every image is a history of all other cinematic images. We are also traces in those images, as our human history is threaded into that most significant cultural and social phenomenon of the last century: cinema.
The purpose of this event is to showcase the work of local photographers alongside the films the photographers are most inspired by stylistically. The Night of the Hunter was chosen by photographer Karin Bubaš because of its style and the artful, photographic way its scenes were composed. Bubaš, an Emily Carr graduate and eminent Vancouver artist, whose work has been shown at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris and the Vancouver Art Gallery, takes direct inspiration from the movie in her recent exhibition currently on display at the Monte Clark Gallery.
Why, you might ask, is a black and white film made in the 50s that met little success at the box office important? Why is it important that it was recently shown at the Vancouver Cinematheque?
I asked myself the first question when the film was shown to me in grade 10. I remember thinking it was very stylized film with an interesting antagonist, but maybe a little bit too moral and a little bit too much of a fairy tale. I still believe this to be true. Also true is that this film has reached cult acclaim for a reason, and that it most deservedly holds the title as one of the greatest American films.
The film begins by following reverend Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum, one of the biggest stars of the day), who we learn early on is a psychopathic criminal. He is quickly arrested for car theft and jailed next to Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who we see getting arrested for stealing $10,000 (but not before managing to hide the money with his children). The film is set during the depression era, and Ben Harper is the righteous man driven to unrighteous behaviour in his attempt to support and protect his family from extreme poverty. Powell is the opposite, a man who feigns righteousness but whose behaviour is inherently evil. These dichotomies of good and evil and lawfulness and lawlessness, are introduced in the biblical reference that begin the film: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. 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.”
This film revolves around the concepts of purity and impurity – especially as applied to children – and the struggles children faced during the great depression. It is based on a novel written by Davis Grubb, whose mother was a social worker who had witnessed Depression-era hardship and the vulnerability of children in those times. The despair of the times is exemplified in a conversation between the preacher and Ben Harper before the latter gets executed. “You killed two men,” the preacher says; “That’s right, preacher,” Harper responds, “I robbed that bank because I got tired of seein’ children roamin’ the woodlands without food, children roamin’ the highways in the year of Depression, children sleepin’ in old abandoned car bodies on junk-heaps; and I promised myself I’d never see the day when my youngins’d want.”
The film then documents Harry Powell’s attempts to deprive these youngins of Harper’s loot: we see them orphaned, forced to run away from home, and finally taken in by the selfless Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish, a star of the silent film era), a woman who isn’t afraid to stay up all night telling Bible stories and toting a shotgun at the evil that waits outside her door. There are many juxtaposition elements in the film, particularly in one of the most eerily beautiful moments of the film where Rachel Cooper and Harry Powell sing an old gospel tune in unison, her inside in the light, him outside in the dark: “leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting love.”
These contrasts are also displayed physically on Powell in the form of tattoos on his knuckles. In what would become one of the most iconic images of 20th-century cinema, Powell has ‘L-O-V-E’ tattooed on his right hand and ‘H-A-T-E’ on his left. One of the film’s greatest scenes shows Harry acting out cosmic arm-wrestle, with the left hand – “the hand that Cain used to strike his brother low” – on top, and L-O-V-E playing the underdog, until love, “down for the count”, makes a last minute recovery and wins once and for all.
In dealing with such topics as the phony aspects of religion, the questionable morality of the death-penalty, and the devastating squalor of the great depression, it isn’t much of a surprise that The Night of the Hunter was not met with acclaim by the conservative audiences of the fifties. The film is quite eccentric and out-there, in terms of both content and cinematic technique.
Walter Schumann’s score is noteworthy and draws on gospel melodies as well as lullabies. The composer creates leitmotifs representing safety for the children and an awareness of danger for Powell. As Powell pursues the children, leaving a trail of theft and murder in his wake, his signature whistle lets the children know that he is approaching. In one stunning scene, John, the elder child, sees the silhouette of Powell on his horse in the farthest corner of the frame, making his way slowly across the horizon while softly singing.
The cinematography and the set design are equally essential to the film’s success. The Night of the Hunter takes inspiration from German Expressionism in its use of shadows and sharp angles to give each frame density and distinctness. The darkest scenes usually involve Powell, whose shadow tends to either precede him or loom above him, suggesting qualities of otherworldly fearsomeness and supernatural power. Many of the sets are clearly fabricated: take, for example, the scene where the children float downriver on a raft, and an aerial shot reveals a manicured landscape and a clearly artificially lit sky with twinkling lights. Somehow though, the clear fabrications don’t remove us from the narrative. The film, especially during this river scene, tends towards the surreal, and the sets and lighting only enhance the permeating feeling of distorted reality.
Given this review, I hope I’ve shown why this film is important, or at least why it stands the test of time as innovative and stylistically impressive. But why is it important now, and why is it important that it was recently shown at the Vancouver Cinematheque?
My arguments are that there is another reason why this film is important, and other elements at work that have sustained this film as a classic. Films, as well as being artistic and cultural documents, can be indicators of principles that we want to uphold as a society.
In light of recent events in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, it seems only fitting that we would revisit these sorts of morality tales to remind us of the principles we hold dear. The important moral in the Night of the Hunter is that the most honourable burdens we can bear are to protect and to be charitable towards those in need of our support and protection. The most obvious parallel between the film and our present political situation exists between the many children caught in the conflict in the Middle East and the two children in the film, John and Pearl, who would have been doomed without the kindness and hospitality of strangers.
“For every child, rich or poor, there’s a time of running through a dark place; and there’s no word for a child’s fear”, Rachel Cooper says at the end of the film. “A child sees a shadow on the wall, and sees a Tiger. And the old ones say, ‘There’s no Tiger; go to sleep.’ And when that child sleeps, it’s a Tiger’s sleep, and a Tiger’s night, and a Tiger’s breathing on the windowpane. Lord save little children!”