In a Rorschach test of movie villainy Harry Powell would undoubtedly be named. By me. And being the spawn of evil’s own strumpet that I am I shall tell his story. With spoilers!
We first meet Harry Powell driving down a dirt road in Charles Laughton’s first and only directorial outing, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). Harry’s driving a Model T praying aloud to the Almighty, spouting the religion forged betwixt them. We don’t need to hear his words to know this is a false prophet – although the words are key. We were just shown his latest handiwork, a sweeping shot that ended on the legs of a lifeless woman just beyond the opening of a cellar door in a rural home. Children discovered the body. Children playing hide-n-seek – a gruesome enough image, but it’s Harry’s heavenly glances and insane prayer that establish his nightmarish persona…
“Well now, what’s it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. You say the word, Lord, I’m on my way…You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killins. Yore Book is full of killins. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.”
Harry’s divine inspiration next takes him to a burlesque show where he’s both turned on and repulsed by the dancer on stage. We get the first close-up of Harry’s clenched left fist, the knuckles tattooed with “H-A-T-E” as he reaches for his signature weapon, a switch blade, which symbolically reveals a sinister sort of arousal.
We’ve known him for a mere few minutes and we know Harry would get no greater pleasure than to permanently erase the woman so she can offend no more. If we hadn’t heard his words the hatred with which he watches the dancer would have told the entire story…
But Harry reconsiders in prayer, “there are far too many of them. Can’t kill the world.” That’s hardly an epiphany, but what a guy!
Harry’s serial killer, misogynist, insane side, the side of him we’ve been allowed to see in the first few minutes of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER are only part of what he is. His true talent – that of hunter – is what makes Laughton’s movie the memorable nightmare it is – it’s the hunting of the little children.
Just as Harry’s finishing his plea to the Lord at the burlesque show he’s arrested for stealing that Model T and ends up sharing a jail cell with one Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who’s been sentenced to death by hanging for murder. Harper’s deed yielded $10,000 he left hidden for his wife and children, hidden in his daughter’s rag doll. Ben confesses to the Preacher and tells him about the money although he doesn’t divulge exactly where it’s hidden. But Harry has his next mission from the Almighty set out before him, one that fits his favorite scenario – a rich widow and two young children who are ripe for the hunting are now in Harry’s path.
For the rest of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER Harry hunts. First he does so up close managing to marry Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) so that he can get her two small children, John and Pearl (played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) to tell him where the money’s hid. And then – in what seems like a different movie visually in several ways – Harry hunts the children from afar after they manage to escape protected first by the Ohio river, which eventually takes them to the loving arms of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who’s made it her life’s mission to protect abandoned children.
The plot of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER as described is relatively simple, but I guarantee you will never see a battle of good versus evil quite like the one depicted in this movie. Laughton manages a purposeful journey in this hunt that is at once excruciatingly disturbing and reverently stunning, capturing both the beauty and the fear of what he intended, a “nightmarish Mother Goose tale from a child’s point of view.”
The story goes that Charles Laughton watched the films of D. W. Griffith countless times in preparation for his directorial debut, which no doubt had a lot to do with his appreciation for Gish’s talent and the fact that she was his first and only choice to play Rachel Cooper. HUNTER is in many ways an homage to Griffith and silent films in general as seen in the many carefully choreographed sequences and occasional stagey reaction shots. To me this is also reminiscent of Hitchcock whose every single shot was purposeful and inspired by his work during the silent era.
As Harry Powell Robert Mitchum delivers what I believe is his best performance. Mitchum’s impressive frame and the way he uses it added to the dry, sneer-laced, low-key and cold delivery of every single word he utters make it difficult to forget this character. By all accounts this remained one of the actor’s favorite roles and films, both of which he was dedicated to from the moment he read David Grubb‘s novel, “The Night of the Hunter” on which the film is based. As great as Robert Mitchum is as Powell he wasn’t Laughton’s first choice for the role. The director initially wanted Gary Cooper who turned it down (thank goodness). However, Laughton was immediately impressed by Mitchum who when told by the director he was looking for a “diabolical, no account creep” immediately answered, “Present!”
The force of darkness that is Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is enhanced by much more than Mitchum’s performance in this movie. The character’s contrast to the ultimate force of good in the person of Rachel Cooper played brilliantly by Gish is wonderful. Cooper is one of filmdom’s greatest heroes by my estimation, the one who ultimately turns Powell into a shrieking, caged animal with all semblance of sanity finally exorcised by the diminutive savior. We know Ms. Cooper is different from everyone else Harry has come across from the moment we meet her, when with suspicion in her eyes she interrupts his “battle between love and hate” story.
While Mitchum may have been Laughton’s second choice the director had only Gish in mind to play Rachel Cooper. When he approached Ms. Gish, however, she was less than enthusiastic, asking the first time director why he wanted HER. He replied, “when I first went to the movies the audience sat leaning forward, straight…I want that again.” As a fan of this movie I can tell you he achieved that. It’s difficult to lie back and relax while watching THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
Aside from the contrast between Powell and Cooper, Charles Laughton further emphasizes Powell’s evilness by contrasting the dark figure to other symbols of good and innocence throughout the film. The battle is ever-present:
- Although there is no redeeming quality in Harry Powell, no true inner struggle he woos his blind minions with the representation.
- Children singing in a playground looking at the chains on swings.
“Hing hang hung. See what the hangman done. Hing hang hing hang hing hang hung. See what the hangman done. Hung hang hing. See the robber swing. Hing hang hung.”
- The fruits of sin hidden in a doll.
- Sacrificial murder in a room made to resemble a chapel.
- True power in the hands of the righteous in my favorite scene in the movie – the stark visual enhanced by the memorable duet of the “Leaning…” hymn. (By the way I’m sure the hymn has an official name, but since “leaning” toward freight is what I do when I hear it it shall forever be referred to as that.)
And so many more. There are several scenes of Harry Powell appearing dark against a lit background, for instance, that are nightmare-inducing. All of that in large part thanks to the exceptional work of Stanley Cortez and Walter Schumann. Cortez because of his striking – and judgmental I might add – black and white photography and Schumann because of his oft jarring musical score. And because it is a bone of contention I’ll mention neither man nor anyone else involved in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER received a single Academy Award nomination. The Academy blasphemed with the omissions as did the critics that panned the movie and the audience who didn’t show up to see it. They missed not only a superior thriller, but also one of the most beautiful films ever made.
As the wonderful thriller that it is THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is testament to what I believe makes so many classic movies memorable – patience. And as a villain this is what makes Harry Powell the worst kind of evil. He is determined and he is patient. He is committed to the hunt until the very end. This is best illustrated by this sequence in the movie:
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Mitchum and Gish had a deep impact on me the first time I saw it as a teen, but never more so than when I watched it on a big screen at the 2013 TCMFF. That remains one of most unforgettable cinematic experiences of my life.
If you need more reasons to watch THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER know that film’s supporting cast including James Gleason, Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe are top rate and Shelley Winters is as good as I’ve ever seen her. Winters’ depiction of Willa adds to a collection of film roles in a career that stands as the best argument against marriage that I can think of.
And so…that’s basically what I think of Harry Powell – psychopath and terrible husband. While “judge not lest ye be judged” may be good words to live by, when it comes to Harry Powell judge him harshly. Or he’ll haunt your night. He’s the worst – a haunting presence in a haunting film.
As evil as Harry Powell is he’s only one of the many unforgettable screen villains featured in The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by three of my favorite bloggers – Ruth of Silver Screenings, Kristina of Speakeasy and Karen of Shadows and Satin. You must abide and you will endure.
If you are interested in delving into the making of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER in earnest I highly recommend Preston Neal Jones’ “Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter” from 2004 – a fascinating read about a forever classic.