“The Night of the Hunter” (1955) opens with an ominously dark night sky, sprinkled with stars and permeated by the righteous voice of Ms. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). Ms. Cooper is recounting a tale of the age-old struggle between good and evil. She cautions us that malice takes many shapes and forms, that it can come in the disguise of sheep’s clothes, but beneath the surface are “ravening wolves.” And on this unsubtle yet effectively unsettling note, the epic tale of two children’s endurance through adversity begins.
Set in the atmospheric, rural American South during the Great Depression, “The Night of the Hunter” kicks into gear without wasting time. Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a father struggling to keep his home afloat, has just robbed a bank of $10,000. He has robbed the bank for a noble cause: to give his children what no one else around him could. One of the film’s strengths is in its stark portrayal of the greatest period of desperation America faced. The scene hits home as Harper gives his money to his son to hide from the authorities, only to be carried off by the police and hanged.
It is in jail that he meets the ravening wolf, the unctuous and chilling minister played to perfection by Robert Mitchum. Being a man of boundless greed, as soon as Reverend Harry Powell discovers Harper’s secret, the wily antagonist escapes from jail in pursuit of his new prize. The rural hometown of the children is naturally ripe to be duped as soon as the reverend takes off in search of Harper’s widow.
The first half of the film moves slowly but surely with an artful undertone of menace. The entire town, including the exaggeratedly vapid widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her neighbor (Evelyn Varden), falls victim to the impostor reverend’s religious mumbo jumbo. Willa goes so far as to marry the fanatic, much to the pleasure of her moronic neighbor. Somewhat to the detriment of the film, but not unforgivably so, the naivete of the adults is as exasperating to the viewer as it is to little John Harper, played by a gritty Billy Chapin. He, like the viewer, is not so easily fooled, even if his little sister is.
The film reaches its peak of cinematography, plot and direction as the threatened, now motherless children are forced to flee from Reverend Powell’s clutches. The film at this point transitions from a gritty horror story to an allegorical fairy tale. The film’s building pulse of suspense and ambiguity slows down and ebbs to a dreamy lull as the children flee down-river in a mystical scene.
As the children find themselves safe-guarded under the tough, motherly arms of Ms. Cooper, the film’s messages become more pointed. It becomes abundantly clear that this is a fairy tale laced with elements of suspense and horror, and that the reverend is symbolic of the devil, while Ms. Cooper is the symbol of pure goodness. This ugly world of adults can only be cleansed by the purity of its children.
The film ends on a fittingly satisfying note that ties all loose ends together, except for one: the Reverend is being whisked away by police from a lynch mob composed of the very same townspeople who had welcomed him with open arms at the beginning of the film. Yet his fate is not truly sealed within the movie’s frame. This chilling afterthought preserves the earlier element of ambiguity and suspense just enough to satisfy the more critical viewer. In the end, however, only one message rings true—that though the “wind blows, and the rains are cold… they (the children) abide.” And it is on this note that the tantalizing darkness of “The Night of the Hunter” is overcome by light. It is almost a shame, but like the rest of the film’s flaws, fitting and forgivable.