A deceivingly peaceful
opening sequence with serene music and twinkling stars sets up a
narrative that is considerably curious, and foreshadows imminent
danger. A similarly tranquil score resonates throughout most of
the film, greatly contrasting the horrifying violence depicted (or
often suggested) onscreen. While we are deceived by the music, the
film focuses on the themes of innocence, good vs. evil, the power
of youth, and the corruption of religion. Particularly interesting
is the choice of pure evil being represented by a man of God. Almost
antireligious, The Night of the Hunter demonstrates how religion
can blind people from the horrors of the world (especially with
Willa’s character) and it can be used to ignore obvious atrocities.
The children in the film are less easily deluded, and the balance
of good and evil takes a unique turn when they must confront Powell
without the help of even-minded adults.
As with other popular movie villains, such as Freddy Krueger
from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Pinhead from Hellraiser, Robert
Mitchum's evil preacher is the most impressive aspect of the film,
and therefore is enjoyed and revered more than the story itself.
Threatening, murderous and cruel, the intimidating gaze and slow,
solemn drawl of Powell is pure movie magic. Famously displaying
the tattoos of “love” and “hate” on his
knuckles, this villain surpasses the importance and morals of
the film and is memorable long after the film is finished.
Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) plays a benevolent savior for the
children when they encounter her during their escape, and her
character poses a peculiarly contrary subject. Representing the
opposite of Mitchum's evil, her narration to the audience and
reasoning for dealing with Mitchum's threatening presence slows
down the suspense of the film and creates an ambiguous moral lesson.
Her love and caring are something the children have been without
for so long and yet their strength shown throughout the taxing
chase by Powell proves that her presence is far from necessary
to thwart the efforts of the killer.
At once condemning religion through the misuse of it by the various
characters, and then praising it by using it to counter the negative
affect Harry has on the kids, The Night of the Hunter raises many
questions. Why does Rachel use biblical stories to soothe the
children, when their blindly religious mother succumbed to a fate
that can be blamed entirely on her empty beliefs? And why does
Rachel fear Powell, yet waits to call the police until after she
is forced to shoot at him during the night? By the unexpectedly
simple conclusion we don’t get to see Powell suffer or pay
for his crimes, so the resolve doesn’t leave us with much
comfort other than knowing that the children are finally free
– and even then, the mental trauma has already taken its
- Mike Massie