Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In actor/director Charles Laughton's only directed film - it was a remarkable debut film noir and a truly compelling, haunting, and frightening classic masterpiece thriller-fantasy. It was an American gothic, Biblical tale of greed, innocence, seduction, sin and corruption. The imaginatively-chilling, experimental and sophisticated work was idiosyncratic, strange, film-noirish, avant garde, and expressionistically dreamy, but it was both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release. Originally, it was a critical and commercial failure.

The disturbing, complex story was based on the popular, best-selling 1953 Depression-era novel of the same name by first-time writer Davis Grubb, who set the location of his novel in the town of Moundsville, WV - the same site as the West Virginia Penitentiary (mentioned early in the film) during the height of the Depression in the 1930s.

The visually-striking black-white photography of Stanley Cortez and the evocative musical score of Walter Schumann (mixing hymns, children's songs, and orchestral music) were exceptional. Told with inventive, stylized, timeless and dark film noirish images, symbolism and visual poetry, it blended both a pastoral setting with dream-like creatures, fanatical characters, imperiled children during a river journey, a wicked guardian/adult, and salvation and redemption in the form of a old farm woman (a 'fairy godmother' or Mother Goose character) rather than from a saintly but devilish Bible-totin' Preacher.

  • the opening voice-over was delivered by Bible-fearing farm woman Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), dressed in a plain dress with shoulder shawl, who magically materialized over the star-filled night background; she spoke to her five disembodied foster children around her and suspended in the heavens, and told them a cautionary Bible story about false prophets ("ravening wolves") in sheep's clothing, while a chorus sang behind her: "Dream, Little One, Dream"
  • Excerpt of Rachel's Bible Story: "Now, you remember children how I told you last Sunday about the good Lord going up into the mountain and talking to the people. And how he said, 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.' And how he said that King Solomon in all his glory was not as beautiful as the lilies of the field. And I know you won't forget, 'Judge not lest you be judged,' because I explained that to you. And then the good Lord went on to say, 'Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.'...A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them"
  • the camera plunged downward to earth to the film's general rural locale - the Ohio River Valley; there was a brief view of children discovering the legs of the corpse of a murdered woman inside a basement entrance while they were playing hide-and-seek
The Preacher in a Stolen Model T - With a Monologue Directed Toward Heaven
  • the next image was of a terrifying and deranged killer-evangelist Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) with borderline sanity - a sinister, crazed, malevolent, black-cloaked, wide-brimmed and hatted 'Preacher' - a misogynistic serial killer driving in a stolen Model T Essex; he delivered a chilling, perversely evil and memorable monologue to the Lord as he glanced heavenward and spoke an insane prayer, asking permission to kill another rich, vain, and wicked widow as his earthly mission: "Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. (He tipped his hat) 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 killin's. Yore Book is full of killin's. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair"
  • Rev. Powell's tattoos revealed the words LOVE and HATE emblazoned on the fingers of his right and left hands, seen as he attended a burlesque strip show and watched the stripper (through a keyhole iris) - his left hand was tattooed with the letters "H-A-T-E" on his four fingers; he clenched his left hand and then reached in his coat pocket to grab his concealed switchblade knife; as his libido was aroused, the flick-knife spontaneously opened - a sexual phallic symbol - violently and orgasmically ready to strike, to punish her for lustfully tempting him
  • suddenly, a policeman's hand grabbed his shoulder, suspecting him of auto theft; with a scene wipe left, 'Preacher' Harry Powell was sentenced before a judge to thirty days in the Moundsville, West Virginia Penitentiary for stealing an auto

John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce)

Their Fugitive Bank-Robbing Father Ben Harper (Peter Graves)

Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) With Her Two Kids
  • in the rural riverside town of Cresap's Landing on the Ohio River, two young members of the Harper family were introduced: young 9 year-old John Harper (Billy Chapin), and 4-year old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce); they were shocked by the sight of their bleeding and wounded father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) driving up in a speeding car, who had just robbed $10,000 from a bank and killed two people; he stashed a wad of money (off-screen) in Pearl's rag-doll named Miss Jenny, and John was entrusted with protecting Pearl and the money's whereabouts; John's mother Willa (Shelley Winters) watched as her husband was arrested and taken away, and John reacted by clutching his stomach in pain; a trial sentenced Ben to death by hanging for having killed two people in the bank robbery, but the money was never recovered
  • before his execution, Ben's cellmate in the Moundsville Prison was Reverend Powell who kept badgering him about where the money was located, but Ben took the secret to his grave; however, Powell thanked God with prayer (with his switchblade between his hands) for pairing him with Ben and learning about the hidden $10,000 dollars: ("A man with $10,000 hid somewhere and a widow in the makin'")
  • as a bell tolled to signify Ben's execution, Willa's two kids were being taunted on the school playground by other schoolchildren, by the singing of the Hangman's Song ("Hing, Hang, Hung (See What the Hangman Done)") and a chalk drawing of a hanged criminal
  • as Willa told her nosy and pushy employer Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) in the town's ice cream palor: "I just don't want a husband," in an ominous set of cross-cutting images shot with a slanted camera angle in the darkness, a train approached closer to the depressed rural town of Cresap's Landing - carrying the newly-freed Powell who had been released from prison; he was in malevolent pursuit of the $10,000 cache of money, believed to be in the possession of the Harper family - widowed wife Willa Harper and her two children
  • in a frightening moment during a moonlight night outside the Harper home, the shadow of Powell's head filled the window of the children's bedroom - it was the Preacher who appeared almost supernaturally, dressed all in black standing underneath the streetlight in front of their house; he strolled away, seductively singing a modified version of his signature tune (and the film's ironic refrain), the ominous hymn - "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms": "Leaning, leaning..."
The Preacher's Shadow - Standing Under a Streetlight
  • the next day in town, John learned from his genial captain friend Uncle Birdie (James Gleason) that a new resident of the boarding house in town (the Preacher) knew his father in prison
  • John was then shocked to see the suspicious Preacher in the Spoons Ice-Cream Parlor where Willa worked; he was entertaining the townsfolk and kissing Pearl's doll; the film's most memorable scene was his favorite hand-wrestling sermon told to young John and other admirers in the store, including Willa and Mr. and Mrs. Spoon (Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden) - the monologue provided commentary on the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil that grappled together - in his two hands: "Ah, little lad, you're starin' at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand-Left Hand - the story of good and evil? (He rose and flexed the fingers of his left hand) H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. (He raised his right hand) L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends! The hand of love! Now watch and I'll show you the story of life"; he pretended that his hands were battling each other in a schizophrenic wrestling match - the struggle between good and evil, love and hate - his warring inner demons: "These fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warrin' and a-tuggin', one agin the other. Now, watch 'em. Ol' brother Left Hand. Left hand, he's a-fightin'. And it looks like LOVE's a goner. But wait a minute, wait a minute! Hot dog! LOVE's a winnin'? Yes, siree. It's LOVE that won, and ol' Left Hand HATE is down for the count!"
The Preacher's Love vs. Hate Monologue in the Ice-Cream Shop
  • at the following Sunday's picnic on the banks of the river, match-making Mrs. Spoon goaded the vulnerable and lonely Willa into being wooed by the black-clothed Preacher ("man of God"); John realized the Preacher was a liar when he reassured Willa that Ben had told him that the stolen money was weighted down and thrown into the Ohio River
  • during a visit a few nights later with Uncle Birdie as the old man strummed his banjo ("Cresap's Landing Party"), John was informed that his father's skiff would finally be repaired with caulking and "ship-shape" (water-ready) in about a week to go fishing
  • in his dark home when John returned, he was told by the Preacher that Willa had accepted his proposal of marriage, and that he was going to marry her at Sisterville the next day, he was horrified; John inadvertently revealed that he was hiding the secret of the money's location when he yelled at Powell: ("You think you can make me tell, but I won't, I won't, I won't!"); the Preacher realized that the boy knew where the money was hidden, and that he had a lot of time to discover its whereabouts
  • during a tortuous wedding night scene between the Preacher and Willa Harper, she was dressed in a nightgown as she stood barefoot in front of a bathroom mirror before joining her virile husband in bed - she was vulnerable and ready to consummate her love, but he humiliated her, and lectured her about not having any more children: "Look at yourself! What do ya see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men. Do you want more children, Willa?...It's the business of this marriage to mind those two you have now, not to beget more"; Willa responded with a prayer directed heavenward: "Help me to get clean so I can be what Harry wants me to be"; Willa accepted her husband's sexual rejection as her religious duty, as the scene faded to black
Willa Denied Sex During Her Torturous Wedding Night with The Preacher
  • during a nighttime revival lit by burning torches, Powell redirected Willa's repressed sexual hysteria into preaching like a fanatical Holy Roller with his paraphrased catch-phrases; she condemned her own sinful past and that of her wayward, bank-robbing ex-husband
  • the next night on their front lawn, Pearl had removed some of the banknotes that were hidden in her doll and was cutting them up into the shapes of two people; she play-acted with the paper dolls that they were John and herself: ("Now, you're John and you're Pearl. You'll get awful mad, John. I done a sin"); John discovered what she was doing and scolded her; she excused her own misbehavior: "I didn't tell no one... It's all here"; behind them, when Powell appeared in the doorway, they were quickly able to stuff the bills back into the doll as he asked: "What's that you're playin' with?"; John answered non-chalantly: "Pearl's junk"; Powell was oblivious as the children entered the house to go to bed, and a few pieces of the money blew around his feet

Close-Up of Pearl's Doll Miss Jenny Split Open With Money

Two Paper Dolls Cut Out of the Money

Stuffing the Money Back Into the Doll

Trying to Avoid Detection
  • Powell called John aside and calmly expressed his anger about how John was "tattling" on him and reporting his questions about the money to his mother; at bedtime, Willa revealed that she had begun to believe Powell's persuasive words over those of her son, and she called her son stubborn and ignorant
  • the next night before Willa returned home from work, in the children's bedroom, Powell questioned John about the location of the money one more time; when John refused to talk, in a perversely chilling questioning session, Powell locked John in the bedroom, took Pearl to the parlor and strongly coaxed her to disclose where her father hid the money: "Where's the money hid? You tell me, you little wretch, or I'll tear your arm off!"; after returning home and standing outside in the fog, Willa listened as Powell pressured and violently abused Pearl, but was disbelieving, helpless and powerless
  • shortly later that evening, Willa was frighteningly knifed to death (her throat was slit) in their honeymoon's A-frame bedroom - she was resigned to her death with her arms crossed over her chest, and glowing from a white light; Powell delivered a benediction, and then raised his switchblade knife high above her (in his right hand - the one marked with LOVE) to carry out the ritualistic murder - on their altar-bed; in his bed late that night, John was awakened by the sputtering sounds of Ben's old Model T Ford
  • to divert attention from Willa's murder, Powell claimed to the townsfolk that Willa had been loose, drunk, and unfaithful to him, and had left town in her ex-husband's automobile; he claimed he would remain to care for the children
  • Willa's corpse was discovered, in a creepy, nightmarish, and hypnotically-eerie scene, sitting underwater in the Model T with her long blonde hair tangling, swaying, and mingling diaphanously in the current with the river's underwater reeds
  • the homicidal Powell (Frankenstein-like) then began a relentless, single-minded search for the money; from outside, an iris-in closed in (a D.W. Griffith-like shot) and followed his menacing approach to the house as he unforgettably called out in a soft, sweet, sing-song voice for the children: "Chill - dren. Chill - dren ?"; he pursued the two children who hid in the basement fruit cellar and called down to them: ("I'm out of patience, children. I'm coming to find you now"); Mrs. Spoon's arrival with a "little hot supper" for the trio briefly interrupted his pursuit; as they emerged dirty from the cellar, she regarded them as "poor motherless children"
  • meanwhile, Uncle Birdie sat drunkenly fearing that if he revealed that he had found Willa submerged and dead in the water, the authorities would blame him: "They'll think it was me"
  • back in the Harper house, after forcing the two children to the dinner table but depriving them of Mrs. Spoon's food, Powell threatened them with his switchblade knife, causing John to lie to him that the money was buried in the cellar floor; when Powell discovered he had been deceived, he prepared to cut John's throat - prompting Pearl to scream out: "It's in my doll. It's in my doll!"

Pearl Screaming Out: "It's in my doll" After Powell Threatened to Slit John's Throat

Powell's Pursuit of the Children Up From the Basement Cellar With His Arms Outstretched

Powell's Fingers Slammed Into Door That Was Then Locked
  • the two children evaded Powell and raced up the stairs - in pursuit, he lunged after them with his arms outstretched, resembling Frankenstein's monster; his hand was caught in door and as he flinched, John locked the door behind them; the children escaped and fled to their father's old skiff on the riverside, after finding that Birdie was drunk and unable to assist them; Powell caught up to them at the riverside after crashing through the thick underbrush and waded out to threaten them with his switchblade knife, but slipped waist-deep into a mudhole as the skiff pushed off and slid into the current just out of his reach; he reacted with animalistic rage
  • there was a lyrical, fairy-tale-like nighttime sequence of the two floating down the river under the starry sky amidst God's benevolent creatures on the shoreline (a croaking frog, rabbits, an owl, tortoise, sheep, and a spider's web)

Shoreline Creatures Nearby - A Frog

Floating Down the River
  • the distant silhouette of the Preacher was viewed on his stolen white horse against the night-time sky as the children slept in a barn's upper hayloft, and John asked himself: "Don't he never sleep?"; the two fled back to their boat, and pushed on until they drifted ashore; the children were rescued by a kindly, warm-hearted, benevolent savior Mrs. Rachel Cooper, an elderly matriarchal widow (seen in the film's opening), who brought them to her farmhouse, and exclaimed: "Gracious, so I've got two more mouths to feed" before scrubbing the dirt off of them in a tub

Rescued by Protective, Elderly Widow Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish): "Gracious, so I've got two more mouths to feed"

The Other Children (l to r): John, Clary (Mary Ellen Clemons), Ruby (Gloria Castillo), Mary (Cheryl Callaway)
  • the Bible-fearing, verse-spouting, sturdy, gray-haired old lady was already taking care of three lost and cast-off children (Clary (Mary Ellen Clemons), Mary (Cheryl Callaway), and Ruby (Gloria Castillo)) made homeless by the Depression
  • soon after during a trip to town with her brood, Rachel told the town's grocer that she likened herself to a 'strong tree with branches for many birds': "I'm good for somethin' in this old world, and I know it, too"
  • the oldest child on the farm, the blossoming, slightly-rebellious and nubile Ruby, (Rachel's "bothersome girl"), was permitted to go to town once a week on Thursday evenings, supposedly for sewing lessons, but she was actually sneaking around and flirting in town with her boyfriend (Michael Chapin, Billy's older brother)

Ruby Flattered by the Preacher in the Town's Drugstore

Ruby Realizing She Had Done Wrong: "I've been bad"

Rachel Comforting and Forgiving Ruby
  • unfortunately during her most recent visit, Ruby was duped when treated well by a nice "gentleman" in the local drugstore - he bribed her with ice cream, the purchase of a movie magazine, and told her that she was pretty; he learned from her that "two new ones" - John and Pearl - were out at the farm; once Ruby realized she had done wrong: ("I've been bad"), she returned to the farmhouse and confessed her disobedience to Rachel ("I never been to sewing lessons all them times...I been out with men"), and she was forgiven: "You were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how. We all need love, Ruby"

The Preacher Looking to Retrieve and Reclaim "His" Children

A Skeptical Miss Rachel Cooper Not Fooled and Realizing that The Preacher Is a Liar

Rachel Ordering the Preacher Off Her Property
  • at the farmhouse the next morning where he arrived on horseback, the Preacher became acquainted with his strong-willed opponent Rachel; he overplayed his emotions when claiming to retrieve "his" children ("poor little lambs"); she knew he was lying when he claimed that the two were in Cincinnati (where his sinful runaway wife had dragged them), down the river (she knew that they floated downstream: "Right funny ain't it how they rowed all the way up river in a ten-foot john boat?"); John was obviously unhappy with the Preacher's appearance ("He ain't my dad!"); when the Preacher brandished his switchblade toward John (who had grabbed the doll and crawled under the front porch), Rachel reached for her shotgun and aimed the muzzle at him, and ordered him off her property: ("Just march yourself yonder to your horse, mister"); as he rode off, he promised to be back, after dark
  • during a classical confrontational scene, Rachel sat in a rocking chair on her screened-in porch (looking like Whistler's Mother) with the shotgun across her lap to battle against him with her own vigil; as he sat outside on a tree stump, he sang his rendition of the hymn with the words: "Leaning, leaning..., she countered by defiantly and harmoniously singing the authentic version of the Protestant religious hymn with a spiritual reference to Jesus during their duet: "Lean on Jesus, lean on Jesus"; afterwards, the Preacher suddenly vanished
Dueling Hymns: Rachel Was Prepared to Save the Children - With Her Shotgun
  • in the kitchen with the children, as Rachel observed an owl swoop down onto a harmless rabbit, she told them about the world's defenseless creatures: "It's a hard world for little things"
  • the Preacher's shadow reappeared inside the darkened living room, and his voice queried: "Figured I was gone, huh?"; Rachel sent the children to safety upstairs, cocked her shotgun, aimed, and asked: "What do you want?"; he answered: "I want them kids!"
  • when he popped up in front of her, she blasted him with her shotgun, after which he ran out of the house, yelping, shrieking and howling like a madman and wounded wolf, after being struck in the shoulder; she phoned the State Troopers to come and apprehend the Preacher cornered in her barn, and the next morning they arrived and arrested Powell for the murder of Willa Harper
  • with mixed feelings, John again reacted traumatically to the arrest of his stepfather, crying out "Don't" before grabbing Pearl's doll and offering it to Powell by pummeling his back with it; the hidden/stolen money flew out of the ripped doll's body (the last female to be split open); as he screamed about the evilness of money: "Here! Here! Take it back, Dad. Take it back. I don't want it, Dad. It's too much. Here! Here!"
  • during a brief trial scene, the witness stand was too much for John and he looked down and was unable (or refused) to testify and point out his mother's killer; however, Powell was still sentenced to be hanged; Rachel had to protectively lead her brood of children (including Ruby found outside the jail and mistakenly on the side of the Preacher) away from the crazed, torch-wielding lynch mob (Mrs. Spoon was carrying an axe) marching through town; Powell was saved from the angry crowd when police took him away through a side door in a car to the penitentiary - for his execution
Rachel's Final Prayerful Words at Christmas-time

"Lord, save little children"

"The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide"

"They abide and they endure"
  • in the fairy-tale ending-conclusion at snowy Christmas-time after some gift-giving with the holiday spirit (a brooch for Ruby and a watch for John), Rachel delivered triumphant and reassuring final words as she marveled about the orphaned, brutalized children who had reclaimed their innocence and were now safe, after many nights of being hunted by a demon; she delivered a prayer to them: "Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide...They abide and they endure"

Rachel's Opening Cautionary Bible Story: "Beware of false prophets"

Children Discovering the Corpse of Murdered Woman

Powell's Left Hand Finger Tattoo Seen in a Strip Club

Hand of Law on His Shoulder

Preacher Powell Cellmate with Ben Harper

Thanking God in Prayer, For Placing Him in a Cell with Harper

A Chalk Drawing of a Hanged Man

Willa Working in The Town's Spoons Ice Cream Parlor

The Ominous Train Bringing Powell to Cresap's Landing

John's Riverboat Captain Friend Uncle Birdie (James Gleason)

The Preacher in Spoons Ice Cream Parlor

The Preacher with Willa at Sunday's Picnic

Powell's Lie to Willa (and John) About the Stolen Money Being Thrown Into the River

John Informed by the Preacher That He Will Be Marrying His Widowed Mother Willa

Willa at the Preacher's Revival

Willa Scolding Her Son John For Tattling to Powell And Lying About the Money

Willa Listening From Outside the House's Parlor as Powell Violently Abused Pearl to Find Out Where the Money Was Hid

A Light Glowing Around Willa

Willa's Murder in an A-Frame

Willa's Fate: Her Corpse Was Soon Found Seated in Submerged Model-T

Powell To Begin a Single-Minded Search for the Money: "Chil-dren, Chil-dren"

At the Top of the Cellar Stairs Calling Out

Pearl and John Emerging Dirty From the Cellar (Mrs. Spoon: "Poor motherless children")

Pursuit of Children Escaping from Powell in Their Father's Repaired Skiff

The Children's Flight From the Relentless Pursuit of the Preacher - Seen Riding a Stolen White Horse

Rachel: "It's a hard world for little things"

The Preacher Popping Up Just Before He Was Shot

Powell's Arrest by Police for Willa Harper's Murder

John Reacting Negatively to the Arrest: "Don't!"

John Striking the Preacher's Back with the Doll - Money Poured Out

On the Witness Stand, John Refused to Point Out His Mother's Killer

Rachel Protectively Leading Her Brood of Young Children Away

Torch-Bearing Lynch Mob

The Children Following Rachel in Single-File Out of Town


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