13. The Night of the Hunter

“HATE” is tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand. A woman in sequins dances sexily onstage, and he responds to her by clenching that HATE hand into a fist, slipping it into his pocket, and snicking open his switchblade. It cuts a hole and protrudes. He looks up to God and whispers, “There are too many of them. I can’t kill a world.”

Then a cop taps Harry Powell’s shoulder, he’s arrested, and in prison he learns of a widow hiding $10,000. Widows with money are his favorite.

Legendary critic Roger Ebert called Robert Mitchum his favorite movie star, and wrote that The Night of the Hunter (1955) was his best movie. Mitchum usually kept it cool, but this is the flick where his freak flag flies.

Powell preaches God’s word like a charming, handsome reverend, but he’s a serial killer. Twenty-five wives, we’re told, “and he killed every one!” That number is over-the-top, but so is the character, and so is the movie. In one weird scene, his new wife Willa lies in bed thanking him for bringing God into her life… and she knows he’s about to kill her! Shot in a room made tiny by shadows at sharp angles, Powell holds his left HATE hand up to God, fingers flexing like a claw. He looks like Dracula, or a werewolf. Then he pulls his knife and kills her.

It’s a monster movie after that. Willa’s children know where the money is, and after Powell’s menacing charm offensive fails, they flee. Switchblade out, growling, Powell pursues.

This isn’t a criminal’s caper, it’s a child’s nightmare. Realism isn’t the goal. The Night of the Hunter is not gritty; it’s almost fantasy. Sets and even Willa’s dead body have a hyper-artistic quality, synthetic yet poetic, and one character speaks directly into the camera.

At first I didn’t like the happy ending, but it fits. Powell is a woman-hating religious-fanatic murderer, so while I loved watching him – he’s just so goofy – I wasn’t rooting for him. He’s an all-time-classic movie villain, but I don’t root for a wolf to eat children.

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