A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruit, you shall know them. – Night of the Hunter
Just as there are not many bank robbers running around the U.S., there aren’t many serial killers stalking the dark streets either.
And the rare few dumb or desperate enough to engage in repeated murder and mayhem invariably meet a sorry end.
Still the public has a bizarre fascination for serial killers, suggesting that beneath the veneer of civilized conduct the blood lust, even if vicariously expressed, remains strong as ever in the hearts of most people.
And Hollywood is ever ready to pander to the public’s fondness for seeing serial killers commit their vile deeds on screen.
A 1950s Era Film
An early Hollywood serial killer movie from the 1950s is The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Naughton based on the popular eponymous novel by Davis Grubb.
Both the book and the films are based on the real-life serial killer Harry Powers, who was caught and hanged in 1932.
In The Night of the Hunter, a black and white noir film set in depression era West Virginia, Robert Mitchum plays serial killer Harry Powell masquerading as a preacher.
So many murders has Harry committed, mostly of vulnerable young widows, that he can’t even remember the number of his victims.
Be they 6 victims or 12, it’s all the same to Harry!
During one of his stints in prison (for car theft??), Harry’s cell-mate is Ben Harper, who’s in prison for robbery and murder. Ben has stashed away $10,000, proceeds from the robbery, disclosing the spot only to his two children John and little Pearl.
Despite Harry’s insistent efforts to get Ben to disclose the location of the loot, Ben goes to the hangman with sealed lips.
Not one to be easily deterred, soon after his release Harry goes to Ben’s widow Willa in the guise of a retired prison chaplain who knew her husband, woos her and, before you can say Jiminy Cricket, marries her.
Now Janus-faced Harry begins his deadly quest for the$10,000 in earnest.
But determined Harry has not reckoned on the strong will of his two young quarries, John and Pearl, who refuse to yield to his threats and escape down-river pursued by the killer on a stolen horse.
Can the youngsters escape the fate of Harry’s earlier victims?
Robert Mitchum is excellent as the criminal Harry Powell in a relentless hunt for the money.
Mitchum’s face seems built for playing Harry Powell.
A cold-blooded, evil, ruthless demeanor sits easy on the face, even as the mouth spews false homilies and prayers to Christ with ease, to con neighbors, mask his true colors and cloak his real motives.
Know it for sure – Never are people more easily duped than by men speaking the words, and praises, of the Lord. True to this day (just read the accounts of several duplicitous pastors caught in immoral acts of different stripes)!
Billy Chapin is effective as the young, grim-faced John Harper determined to thwart Harry and protect himself and his little sister Pearl from the killer.
Lillian Gish plays Rachel Cooper, the tough good counterfoil to Mitchum’s Harry Powell, with great spirit.
Gun in hand and the Lord’s hymns on her lips, the old lady sees through Harry’s act and ensures he gets his just desserts at the end.
Naughton with the help of screenwriter James Agee and director of photography Stanley Cortez creates a sinister, ominous mood throughout the film.
You sense bad events are just round the corner and indeed they are.
Much of the movie is shot either indoor or in the dark.
Deft use of shadows and long shots combine to create an eerie, ominous effect of lurking evil and imminent danger.
Despite cinema’s raison d’être as a visual medium, rarely ever is photography compelling and rarer still in sync with the mood and theme of a film. The Night of the Hunter, I’m glad to say, is a notable exception.
You can get The Night of the Hunter on DVD at Netflix.
SearchIndia.com recommends Night of the Hunter for all noir buffs.