Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The next day, John learns from his genial, riverboat captain friend Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), the only trustworthy male friend that he has found, that a new resident of the boarding house in town (the Preacher) knew his father in prison. Suspicious and troubled by the news, John immediately goes to Spoon's ice-cream parlor, where he is shocked to see through the window that the Preacher/stranger he saw by the streetlight is speaking to everyone and kissing Pearl's doll - where the money is stashed! He rushes inside as the Preacher puts Pearl on his lap, explaining that he was previously "employed" at the prison where Brother Harper was executed: "It is my joy to bring this small comfort to his loved ones."

One of the well-meaning, pious townsfolk, Mrs. Spoon, is impressed by him - a man of the cloth, who quotes scriptures and exemplifies a paragon of virtue: "It's a mighty good man would go out of his way to bring a word of cheer to a grieving widow." Wide-eyed and awed - but still suspicious, John stares at the stranger's hands, and Powell (with grotesque and terrifying charm) offers to his admiring, rapt audience a famous explanation and demonstration with his booming voice in front of a transfixed audience. His left hand's knuckles are tattooed with H-A-T-E and his right hand's knuckles are tattooed with L-O-V-E:

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 rises and flexs 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 raises 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.

Then, in the film's most famous sequence, the smarmy preacher demonstrates his seductive version of medicine-show con art in the form of a sermonette he calls "the story of life." To the rustic people, he pretends that his hands are battling each other in a schizophrenic wrestling match - the struggle between good and evil, love and hate - his warring inner demons. Naturally, in his parable of Right-Hand-Left-Hand, LOVE wins the hand-to-hand combat:

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!

Willa, John's mother, and Mr. and Mrs. Spoon are spell-bound and mesmerized - impressed by the religious fervor of his message, especially Willa who believes he represents LOVE. Although John is still cool and suspicious and stares at him (he's the only one who distrusts and fears the stranger), Powell is invited to stay for Sunday's picnic on the banks of the river.

During the pastoral Sunday picnic attended almost entirely by townswomen, the entire group sang the gospel hymn: "Bringin' in the Sheaves." The prissy Mrs. Spoon goads the vulnerable and lonely Willa into being wooed by the black-clothed preacher ("man of God") and accepting his proposal of marriage: "That fella is just aching to settle down with some nice woman and make a home for himself...If ever I saw a sign from heaven...Pearl dotes on him." Willa is unsure, wondering whether it is too early after her husband's death, and if Powell is only interested in her husband's money. But ultimately, she is easy prey for the Preacher's pecuniary lust.

When she asks him point-blank about it, John watches their conversation from a distance - and the scene is shot from his point of view, as he is served fudge by the talkative Mrs. Spoon who blabs on about "decent women" not desiring sex:

When you been married to a man forty years, you know all that don't amount to a hill o' beans. I been married to my Walt that long and I swear, in all that time, I just lie there thinkin' about my canning....A woman's a fool to marry for that. That's somethin' for a man. The good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that, not really want it. It's all just a fake and a pipe dream.

When John and Pearl are called over by his mother, the preacher confides in her - with a horrendous lie - that the stolen money was weighted down and thrown into the Ohio river: "The night before your father died, he told me what he did with that money. That money's at the bottom of the river, wrapped around a twelve-pound cobblestone." John knows otherwise, but Willa is relieved (with sexual overtones):

I feel clean now. My whole body's just a-quivering with cleanness.

A few nights later, John visits again with Uncle Birdie, as he strums on his banjo: "Cresap's Landing Party." John is informed that his father's skiff would finally be repaired with caulking and "ship-shape" (water-ready) in about a week to go fishing.

After John returns home after dark, the house is very quiet, until a black shadow moves behind him, and Harry Powell steps out of the side room, greeting him with a soft, kindly voice: "Good evening, John." In the narrow hallway where he is closed in, John is told that Powell is going to marry his mother at Sisterville the next day, and that Willa wants him "to be a daddy to you and your sister." John is horrified by the news of the coming marriage:

John: You ain't my dad, you'll never be my dad.
Powell: When we get back, we're all going to be friends and share our fortunes together, John.
John (shouting at him): You think you can make me tell, but I won't, I won't, I won't!

As soon as he realizes he has said too much, John slaps his hand over his mouth, but it is too late. Powell realizes that the boy knows where the money is hidden and asks: "Tell me what, boy?...We aren't keeping secrets from each other, are we, little lad?...Well, it don't matter. We've got a long time together, boy."

In the tense and tortured scene of their wedding night together, Willa is dressed in a nightgown as she stands barefoot in front of a bathroom mirror before joining her virile husband in bed. She is vulnerable and ready to consummate her love - she turns out the light and then pauses to open the door and enter the bedroom.

Powell suppresses his bride's natural sexual feelings for him [since he really wants her money, not her sexuality or her love]. By illuminating her with a bright light and forcing her to stand in front of a full-length mirror, he immediately makes her ashamed for even expecting sex by treating her desires as sinful. To humiliate her, he tells her that her body is the "temple of creation and motherhood" that men since Adam have defiled for lustful gratifications. He instructs her that the only purpose for her body is for "begettin' children", and her sexual expectations are subsequently dashed:

Willa: Harry?
Powell: I was praying.
Willa: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know. I--I thought...
Powell: You thought, Willa, that the moment you walked in that door, I'd start to paw at you in that abominable way that men are supposed to do on their weddin' night. Ain't that right now?
Willa: No, no, no. (She crosses her hands over her breasts.)
Powell: I think it's time we made one thing perfectly clear, Willa. Marriage to me represents the blending of two spirits in the sight of heaven. (She collapses on the pillow and lets go an aching moan.)
Powell: (He turns on the bright overhead light - a bare bulb.) Get up, Willa. Get up! (She obeys.) Now go look at yourself yonder in that mirror. (She is frozen.) Do as I say! (She moves slowly over to the mirror.) 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?
Willa: (with a vacant look) I-I, no.
Powell: It's the business of this marriage to mind those two you have now, not to beget more.
Willa: Yes.
Powell: (He switches off the light and returns to bed.) All right, you can get in bed now, stop shiverin'.
Willa (praying heavenward): Help me to get clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be. (The scene fades to black.)

As time passes, Willa falls more under the Preacher's spell and the vapid wife willingly accepts his sexual rejection as her religious duty. In another short scene, she joins him in revival services that are lit with burning torches. He redirects her repressed sexual hysteria into preaching like a fanatical Holy Roller with paraphrased catch-phrases of his. As she asks for forgiveness, she condemns her own sinful past and that of her wayward ex-husband, by zealously confessing that she drove her first husband into robbing banks and killing people because she demanded funds for "face paint." She proclaims that Ben threw the money in the river:

You have all sinned. Which one of you can say, as I can say, that you drove a good man to murder because I kept a-houndin' him, for perfume, and clothes, and face paint? And he slew two human beings. And he come to me, and he said, 'Take this money, and buy yourself the clothes! And the paint!'...But brother-n, brother-n, oh that's where the Lord stepped in, that's where the Lord stepped in...He said, the Lord, to that man, 'You take that money, and you throw it in the river!'

The next night on their front lawn, Pearl removes some of the banknotes that are hidden in her doll and is cutting them up into the shapes of two people; she play-acts with the paper dolls that they are John and herself: ("Now, you're John and you're Pearl. You'll get awful mad, John. I done a sin"); John discovers what she is doing and scolds her; she excuses her own misbehavior: "I didn't tell no one... It's all here"; behind them, when Powell appears in the doorway, they are quickly able to stuff the bills back into the doll as he asks: "What's that you're playin' with?"; John answers non-chalantly: "Pearl's junk"; Powell remains oblivious as the children enter the house to go to bed, and a few scraos of the money blow around his feet. Powell calls John aside and calmly expresses his anger about how John is "tattling" on him and reporting his questions about the money to his mother.

At bedtime, Willa reveals mistrust of her own son, believing Powell's word over John's. When John tells his mother that Powell had been asking about the money again, Willa thinks he is being impudent, stubborn, and mulish again: "John, you always make up that lie. There is no money. Why can't you get that through your head?"

The next night before Willa returns home from work, in the children's bedroom, Powell questions John about the location of the money one more time. [In the scenes with the children, the creepy Powell corners them and taunts them in disturbing ways.] He tries to relentlessly wear him down to reveal its hiding spot.

Powell: Where's the money hid?
John: I don't know.
Powell: She thinks that money's at the bottom of the river. But you and me, we know better, don't we?
John: I don't know nothin'.
Powell: Well, never mind, boy. The summer's young yet.

When John refuses to talk, he turns to Pearl, puts her on his lap, and tries to ingratiate himself to her. She has succumbed to his pretended affection for her. In a perversely chilling questioning session, he works on her childish love of keeping and revealing secrets. He convincingly coaxes Pearl to talk and reveal the secret of the money's location, by pressing her with the same question:

Powell: Where's the money hid?
John (who threw a hairbrush and hit Powell on the head): Pearl, you swore you wouldn't tell. You swore, you swore, you swore!
Pearl: You hit Daddy with a hairbrush. (She extends her arms around her 'Daddy's' neck.)
Powell (seeing his opportunity to divide them): Now you see, we just can't have anything to do with John. You and me will go on down to the parlor, girl. (Pearl takes her doll with her, and Powell locks John in the bedroom.)

When Willa arrives home late from work in the dense fog, she stands outside and overhears how her new husband has been lying and violently abusing the children:

Powell: John was just plum bad through and through.
Pearl: John's bad.
Powell: Yes, John's bad.
Pearl: Tell me another secret about my dad.
Powell: Oh no, your turn.
Pearl: All right, what secret shall I tell?
Powell: Where's the money hid?
Pearl (obeying John's instructions): John said...
Powell (violently raging): Where's the money hid? You tell me, you little wretch, or I'll tear your arm off!

Scared out of her wits, Pearl screams and runs away, as Willa rushes in the front door between them. But Willa doesn't want to believe what she has heard with her own ears. She smiles at Powell with a despairing and rigid but helpless look. She patiently waits for an explanation (but there is none), and then runs after Pearl.

In a frightening yet subdued murder scene, in their upstairs bedroom that looks more like a high, A-framed church and is lit with weird, ecclesiastical lighting, Powell forcefully wants her to confess to overhearing his conversation with Pearl outside the window. She has caught on to his lies, but it is too late. As she lies on her back on the bed with her arms crossed over her chest, light glows around her (similar to a pose of the Virgin Mary). She is resigned to her death as a perverted kind of salvation. Willa offers her confessional before being saved and delivered by death:

It ain't in the river, is it, Harry?...Ben never told you he throw'd it in the river, did he?...The children know where it's hid. John knows. Is that it, Harry? Then, it's still here amongst us, taintin' us. You must have known about it all along, Harry? But that ain't the reason why you married me. I know that much...He made you marry me, so you could show me the Way and the Life and the salvation for my soul. Ain't that so, Harry? So you might say that it was the money that brung us together. The rest of it don't matter.

Convinced that she knows nothing about where the money is hidden, Powell plays out the scene as if it is a prayer service and a communal sacrifice, and Willa obliges. He gives the benediction, and then raises his switchblade knife high above her (in his right hand - the one marked with LOVE) to carry out the ritualistic murder - on the altar-bed. The scene ends with a wipe left before she is killed (off-screen). In his bed late that night, John is awakened by the sputtering sounds of Ben's old automobile.

To divert attention from the murder, Powell feigns being righteously upset and lies with charming plausibility and lamentation. In the ice cream parlor as the sympathetic Spoon couple hang on his every word, he tells Willa's employers that she allegedly ran away with another man. Heartbroken, he tells how she left in the middle of the night in her husband Ben's old Model T Ford: "It's my shame. It's my crown of thorns. I must wear it bravely." He tells them that he suspected she was unfaithful right at the start - on their honeymoon night, "she turned me out of the bed." He will remain to care for the children. When they propose that she might come back, to console him, he replies:

She'll not be back. I reckon I'm safe in promising you that.

Willa is portrayed as a loose, drunken, unfaithful wife, beyond salvation: "I tried to save her...But the devil wins sometimes. Can't nobody say I didn't do my best to save her."

A nightmarish, hypnotically-eerie image dissolves into view - water reeds flow in underwater current. Willa's corpse is strapped to the front seat of the old Model T Ford submerged in the river, her long blonde hair tangling, swaying, and mingling diaphanously in the current with the river's underwater reeds. [Her prayer "to get clean" has been hideously fulfilled with a water baptism and its eternal cleansing.] Her throat has been slashed - another of Powell's female victims with her body cut open. [She has been deposited where the Preacher claimed the money was located.] The grisly sight is discovered by John's only confidant, Uncle Birdie, while he is fishing.

A visual and audio dissolve from the death scene has the Preacher absent-mindedly singing: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while leaning on a tree outside the Harper house. Powell unforgettably calls out in a soft, sweet, sing-song voice for the children:

Chill - dren. Chill - dren ?

As he calls out, an iris-in closes in (a Griffith-like shot) and follows his menacing approach to the house to continue his interrogation of the children, while they hide in the basement cellar. He frantically searches the house for them, but they do not answer. John, knowing the danger they are in, tells Pearl that they should run away to escape. Powell opens the basement door and shouts down a warning to them from the top of the stairs, in order to force them to come out:

I can hear you whisperin', children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience, children. I'm coming to find you now.

Mrs. Spoon's voice in the kitchen calls out "Yoo-hoo, Mr. Powell?" - she has brought them "a little hot supper" - interrupts his pursuit, and the children emerge from their hiding place when she calls to them ("John, Pearl, shake a leg!"). She feels sorry for them, covered with soot and coal dust ("dust and filth from top to toe") and characterizes them as "poor motherless children."

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