An Appreciation – The Night of the Hunter
Boiled down, the central theme features the never-ending battle between good and evil. This is best represented in Harry’s famous tattoos. Even if people have never seen The Night of the Hunter, they will immediately recognize the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on Harry’s knuckles. In one of his many diatribes, Harry describes the story of Love and Hate like the battle between brothers Cain and Abel. This very speech has been referenced before, most notably in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). The story of Left Hand/Right Hand is the story of good versus evil, and how the two will forever clash. It’s an interesting piece of symbolism, signifying how easily evil can tempt those away from the side of good. Harry does this very thing to most of the citizens he meets, including little Pearl. But John is not fooled, he sees beneath Harry’s façade, and goes on the run with his sister.
There are sequences of extreme suspense, especially with John and Pearl’s escape from Harry’s clutches. What makes these scenes work so well is how the imagery is so dramatic, leaving a footprint in our minds. When Harry chases John and Pearl out of the house cellar, Harry reaches out to them in an unrealistic but creepy manner. There’s also the scene where John and Pearl jump on a rowboat, barely able to make it out onto a nearby river just as Harry appears on the shore. Harry gets so close to the kids that we are almost certain that he will catch them, and when they manage to evade him he lets out a yell that only shows much of a “beast” he is becoming. And then there’s the scene where John and Pearl rest in a barn, only to hear Harry singing, a silhouette of him on horseback appearing in the distance. He is like the embodiment of death – slowly but surely coming for his next victim.
But if Harry represents evil, then Lillian Gish – playing Ms. Cooper – represents the unwavering good that faces up to him. Gish was a star of the silent era, and while she only appears here in the final third of the narrative, her presence and gravitas creates a perfect counterpoint to the preacher. Where Harry spouts the supposed “Word of God” but acts through his own greed, Ms. Cooper practices the good will and charity that she believes in. She takes in lost children like a foster parent, eventually offering her home for John and Pearl to take refuge. Like John, she isn’t fooled by Harry’s demeanor. While they both claim to embrace religion, it is Ms. Cooper who actually lives by it. But that doesn’t make her weak, in fact it’s what gives her strength. The shot of her sitting in a rocking chair wielding a shotgun in defense of the children is yet another striking image, referencing the famous 19th century painting, “Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler.
The showdown between Harry and Ms. Cooper plays out as though we have magically been transported into a madhouse, climaxing in a classic “jump scare.” In lesser films, we would get bombarded with jump scares one after the other, the majority of which are simply fake outs. But Laughton and the rest of the production earns this moment, slowly ramping up the dread toward this one crucial instance where Harry pops out of nowhere, with a face of a ghoul, only to be shot at by Ms. Cooper (admittedly, this sequence has an inexplicably hilarious tinge to it). Harry has completely transformed into a human animal at this point, and when Ms. Cooper shoots him, he scampers off hooting and hollering like some hellish demon.
The tragedy doesn’t happen at this moment, but soon after. The next morning, when Harry is caught by local authorities and led away, John gets a flashback to an earlier scene where his father was captured in a similar manner. Here is John, who has spent the majority of the runtime either fighting against or running away from Harry, only to fall to his knees by him, calling him “Dad” and throwing the money at him (which was hidden in Pearl’s doll). The film shows both the resiliency of children, but also how vulnerable they can be. As Ms. Cooper says, “It’s a hard world for little things.”
Cinema is such an expressive artform – with the ability to tap into our dreams, hopes, and fears – that to simply recreate the look and feel of the real world can sometimes be a disservice. It has the ability to take what we can conjure up in our minds and fully realize them through sight and sound. The Night of the Hunter is an example of how a filmmaker was able to use his creativity to fully articulate his vision. It may not have been a hit when it was first released, but its reputation and cultural impact have rippled through time, like an old folktale passed down through the generations.