The “hero” of The Night of the Hunter is a young boy named John who manages to trick the blasphemous preacher into not getting the money he so greatly desires. The boy takes his younger sister Pearl on a beautiful ride down an enchanted river full of natures various children. These almost spiritual scenes act as a relaxing escape from the overall dark nature of the film. While going across the river, John and his sister encounter fellow children starving due to their depression era misfortunes.
John and his sister are eventually taken in by Rachel Cooper, who runs a home for orphaned children. Cooper is played by no other than an elderly Lillian Gish, one of the greatest and most expressive of American silent screen actresses. I never thought I would see the day that Gish would point a shotgun at a preacher, and for that alone The Night of the Hunter is worth viewing. Ms. Cooper has a special place in her heart for children as they “abide.” Ms. Cooper also perfectly contrasts the preacher in an audacious manner.
The preacher has “LOVE” tattooed on his right hand and “HATE” on his left hand. These two emotional extremes act as the perfect theme for the overall film. The Night of the Hunter is a film truly about good vs. evil. The children in the film represent a pure clean soul and the preacher having a completely tainted (and ruined) soul. The preacher is the worst kind of evil as he is a false prophet as his “fruits” make clear. He has no problem acknowledging that sometimes “the Devil wins.”
The Night of the Hunter features one of the most powerful and ironically beautiful scenes committed to celluloid. The young mother of the children is found at the bottom of the river with her neck slit sitting upright in her car. The shot is illuminating and glowing as the beautiful dead young woman’s hair waves through the water. Apparently, The Night of the Hunter director Charles Laughton was inspired by the films of the German expressionists. Laughton is able to combine the expression of the German masters with the mystical elements of nature. The director didn’t just simply “borrow” techniques from films of the past.
Like Carnival of Souls, The Night of the Hunter is a film which was the start and the end of a director with much promise in the world of cinema. The Night of the Hunter is as perfect as a film of its kind can be. The film has a combination of children’s songs, violent murder, superb performances, and a power that demands many viewings. I’m not much a religious person, but The Night of the Hunter has its own unique kind of sermon that stayed with me long after the film’s conclusion.