Conversations about film
January 9, 2021
The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton, 1955
Jim Wilson: Welcome to Collokino, Marc. It’s great to have you. How’s the New Year treating you so far?
Marc Dottavio: Thanks, Jim, I can’t complain so far. I spent most of 2020 pretty much in lockdown, though it’s been a great opportunity to check things off my watchlist and step up my Letterboxd writing. I’ve been looking forward to our discussion, especially concerning this particular film. Has your 2021 been off to promising start?
Jim: So far so good. You’re in Ohio, correct? What part?
Marc: Yep, I’m in Northeast Ohio near Canton, a short drive from the Football Hall of Fame. (A drive wasted on me, unless I suddenly start getting into sports.) We’re in the dregs of winter, which right now means little snow but lots of that Ohio cold and grey. It’s a great time to stay in and watch movies, even if COVID hadn’t been keeping me home anyway.
Jim: Well, then your enthusiasm for sports matches my own.
You brought Charles Laughton’s 1955 expressionistic thriller The Night of the Hunter to discuss, a film I hadn’t previously seen. Why don’t you start out detailing a little of your own background with the film, like when you first saw it, what you admired about it, and how you see its place in the history of cinema.
Marc: Here’s where it starts for me: growing up, my grandma (Nana to us) had a cabinet of VHS tapes—mostly movies recorded off of TV with the commercials cut out. I raided the same disparate collection pretty often, which ranged from Honey, We Shrunk The Kids to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to, of all things, The Night of the Hunter. That was the only one Nana talked about liking herself, especially for Robert Mitchum. I watched it several times, both with her and alone, and I’m not sure I realized just how unique it was. Certainly not how it drew on noir and southern gothic and German expressionism… it just registered as eerie, and darker and stranger than most “old movies” I’d seen.
I was obsessed with horror around that time, so Mitchum’s character and the dark fairy tale elements definitely appealed to me. Still, I had no idea I was watching my future favorite film. It wasn’t until years later that I returned to it with a critical eye, both on my own and as part of a film class. These re-watches just floored me. Apart from the stunning formal qualities— which we’ll get more into later, I’m sure— it’s to the point now where every revisit has my eyes welling up in anticipation of something in nearly every scene. For whatever reason I could probably get into in therapy, I just respond strongly to it. The last time we spoke before she passed, I made sure Nana knew how much this film meant to me.
As for its place in film history, this occupies a strange position for such an acclaimed work. The lore most cinephiles know about The Night of the Hunter involves its director, the famous British actor Charles Laughton. He would never make another film after this (his debut) flopped, and it was many years before this unique mix of tones and styles became recognized as a classic. It may be the most famous one-and-done in film history. I have no idea what any other Laughton film would have looked like, or if he could (or would) have replicated the style here. So its greatness makes for more of a cul-de-sac than a gateway, even though years of appearing on Greatest Films lists has certainly raised its profile. Certain elements have even seeped into pop culture, like the Love and Hate tattoos that Spike Lee borrowed for Do The Right Thing. Of course that’s also part of what makes this film so special. 65 years later, there’s still nothing quite like it.
Jim: I won’t argue with that. But I have to tell you, Marc, that after watching it twice, I’m completely mystified by this. I’m afraid I lack the proper cinephile’s tools to appreciate this film. It comes from an era in cinema I have almost no experience with. With your help (and if you accept this mission), I hope to learn what I’m not seeing, though I doubt I’ll ever actually like this movie. I have some critical bones to pick, which we’ll get to, but for now I just have a lot of questions.
I don’t think I’ve ever been a big fan of Expressionism, whether in cinema or any other art, though I’ve never thought about it much as a thing to either like or dislike. It does often seem garish, awkward and strained to me. It opposes, or resists, modernist ideas about realism. Being mostly a literature guy for most of my life, it’s not a movement, or style, I’ve encountered much, since it doesn’t arise much in literature; it seems to flourish more in the visual arts. What I do understand of it is its heavy reliance on representational meaning, as in that meaning this, and this meaning another thing, and so on. And that is certainly true of Hunter, where everything we see is so obviously representational of interior perception, whether the characters’, the director’s or the writers’. So let me start with this question: When you first saw this growing up, were you aware of that representational quality, or did your young mind read it literally? Or was it just so curiously strange that it enchanted you?
Marc: I happily accept this mission, Jim. I was interested to hear the perspective of someone new to Hunter, and your reaction will make for a much more interesting conversation. So where to start? I’m definitely not expert level on 1950s Hollywood, but these days I try to spread out my viewing throughout eras. It does take a certain amount of mental adjustment when switching between time periods; silent films, for example, come with an entirely different set of tropes than audiences just a decade later would have expected. For me, the more time I spend immersed in one era, the more I become “blind” to things I used to expend mental energy processing.
I wonder how much of your response would apply to the era’s filmmaking in general as opposed to this particular film. From what I’ve read of yours, you seem like more of a French New Wave kind of guy. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) I know you’re fond of Claire Denis, who seems to work in a more realistic mode even while focusing on lyricism over plot. Of course, there was a very different standard for “realism” in the 1950s, and much has changed in terms of acting styles, editing, etc. Even then, though, Hunter is not especially representative of what audiences would have expected— hence its commercial failure.
But to belatedly answer your question: when I first saw this, I was probably too young to register much beyond the plot and how threatening Robert Mitchum was. I wasn’t thinking much in terms of symbolism, realism, or any “isms” at all. This is ultimately a film about, but not for, children.
As for the representative quality you mention, that may be part of what I consider the (very dark) fairy tale elements. There are definite dichotomies here: light vs dark, hypocrisy vs faith, being lost vs found. But they have an elemental force in this context, with the overwhelming sense of danger making the hard-won moments of beauty so moving. Once the children— now orphans— set off down the river, Mitchum’s banal evil seems to tap into something more mythic, now playing out on an equally mythic American landscape. (I’ll get into what makes this film distinctly American as well.) Though there are moments I’ll point out that complicate even that.
Jim: Though Hunter is, of course, made in the ‘50s, I don’t code it as such. It seems to be working with a cinematic language more from the ‘20s and ‘30s. You’re right, I love the French New Wave stuff, which began in the ‘50s, and I enjoy other films from the ‘50s as well, but again, I wouldn’t call Hunter a ‘50s film. I think about the silent era, and Fritz Lang, even The Wizard of Oz, as parallels to Hunter. The realism of, say, Malle or Kazan or De Sica or Rossellini, is the kind of modern realism I associate with the 1950s. The Night of the Hunter doesn’t even nod faintly in that direction. I guess all of this is just to say that I struggle to place this film in a stylistic and representational context that makes sense, and it continues to elude me.
But let’s not set off into the weeds before we’ve even established the story. Lay out a plot synopsis for me, at least for the first act, and from there we can address some of the particulars.
Marc: As a thriller, The Night of the Hunter has a pretty intriguing hook. It begins in 1930s West Virginia, with Ben Harper racing back home from a bank robbery that left two dead. Right before the police capture him, he makes his young children John and Pearl swear to never reveal where he’s hidden $10,000 (roughly $150,000 in today’s dollars) in stolen money. The money, we later learn, is stuffed inside Pearl’s doll.
At the same time, we meet Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a travelling preacher who has been marrying and then killing young women he deems “impure.” He gets picked up on a minor charge and ends up sharing a cell with Harper, who is about to be executed for his crimes. He doesn’t reveal where the money is hidden, but still gives Harry the idea for his next con. Soon the preacher shows up in town, welcomed as a charming man of God, and starts romancing Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Only John seems suspicious of this false prophet, who turns the children’s mother into a religious zealot while trying to suss out where the money could be.
That accounts for about the first act, which is where I’d normally stop to avoid spoilers. I know we’ll go far beyond that, so suffice it to say: the rest of the film follows the children as they escape from home, wandering alone deep into the South as Harry stays in pursuit. Where they end up, and who turns out being the match for this terrifying villain, is straight out of a dark fable. Well, if you read it like I do.
Jim: Don’t worry about spoiling. That’s what we’re here to do.
It’s the scene when Ben Harper (Peter Graves) arrives home after the robbery and murder that first alerted me I was in for a long haul. He certainly doesn’t look like someone who’s just robbed a bank and killed two people. Even with the goofy police close behind, he talks to his children like they have all the time in the world. When the cops arrive and approach him (careful not to trample the seedlings, mind), they don’t seem alarmed at all by a suspect brandishing a hand gun with two little children around, and gingerly lower him to the ground. It’s all so unreal I didn’t have any idea what was going on, and only pieced it together later.
You say Powell is welcomed in the town as a charming man. I don’t dispute that. That’s certainly what we’re expected by the film to think, but we know better, since we’ve already heard Powell, in his delusional monologue to the “Lord”, confess to his crimes. Perhaps this is part of what I hear folks say about Powell being “scary”, because we know about the terrible acts of which these good people can’t imagine a servant of the Lord is capable. Okay, that’s a good horror set-up, except there’s nothing even remotely charming about Powell. The ruse isn’t working. He’s just plain creepy. And I’ll tell you, dude, I know I’ll catch hell for it, but Mitchum is so bad in this. I’m certain he’s hamming it up in a way that delighted Laughton, but it just annoys me. I can find something good in most of the performances. Graves is good, Winters is great, the kids are fine, but Mitchum is awful. This must be intentional, or has been re-read over time as something so bizarrely bad it’s now considered good.
Whatever the case, there’s nothing charming about Powell, though I know I’m supposed to perceive him that way, through the eyes of the citizens (an odd conceit I reject outright), the seductive newcomer as a false prophet come to prey on the innocent. But there’s nothing charming about him. His appeal is not convincing, and his attraction to the townspeople seems driven mostly by a collective brainwashing of the female populace, from youngest to oldest, with only the holders of Y chromosomes capable of rightly distrusting Powell. I’ve been turning this around in my thoughts. Is this casual sexism or something subtly significant about this community Laughton wants us to reflect on? The religious fealty of the townspeople goes a long way to explaining this, but that feels as much like another gross, representational signpost.
Marc: I suspect that when it comes to certain elements here, there will be no bridging the gap between our sensibilities. Not that I won’t try! The artificiality you detect during the father’s arrest, for example, is no more distracting to me than how actors used to get “shot” by bloodlessly clutching their chests and falling over. Or how romantic leads would propose on the second date and never seem to share a bed with their wives. I think that in a lot of cases, where you see hokiness, I see conventions that don’t much get in the way of my experience.
Here’s what I’ll say about Mitchum. His performance is very much based on the rhetorical style of preachers from the 30s, and there’s a certain amount of intentional “hamminess” that is actually quite authentic. To me, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell seem utterly charmless and transparent, yet to this day they appeal to a huge audience. The fact that Harry speaks even to himself this way doesn’t negate that. In fact, it’s even more chilling that he’s internalized his performative righteousness to the extent that he seems genuinely convinced that God has entitled him to kill women and take their money. How else to explain how he slut-shames his own wife, in private, for wanting to sleep with him on their wedding night?
There’s also an element of humor to the character. Harry is largely hapless, getting arrested for misdemeanors and only being able to manipulate the weakest of minds. (As for how that breaks down by gender, I’d point to Lillian Gish’s character as a major exception.) He reveals his intentions to the children too quickly, and practically pratfalls while they escape from right under him. I don’t think any of this is unintentional. I mentioned the banality of evil before, and I think we’re meant to see something pathetic in, for example, his high-pitched yelps after proving no match for an old woman with a shotgun.
That said, there’s nothing funny to me in his animalistic howl as the children escape on the boat, or when he humiliates his wife for daring to desire intimacy. It may be the juxtaposition I find so compelling— how the bloviating huckster will always fool adults while the wiser look on, and how the clumsy buffoon nevertheless has a knife that can really kill (little children, no less). He’s a uniquely American brand of predator: shameless, nearly transparent, but peddling something that renders those traits beside the point. People like Georgie Wallace or Donald Trump are rarely the most “charming” guys in the room, is what I’m saying.
Jim: Those are great points that help to provide nuance to a film I find as nuanced as a baseball bat. It helps me a little to understand that much of the ignorance and ugliness of the characters is the point, though it doesn’t make me like it any more. In some of the reading I did to prepare for this, I learned that Laughton’s bisexuality made him a target for the contempt of religious bigots and other conservative cultural arbiters with whom he crossed paths, and that informs a great deal of how he portrays religious moralism in the film. I find that very compelling. I am a little disappointed, though, that Laughton’s refutation of religious hypocrisy doesn’t result in a wholesale abandonment of a religious framing of the film, but instead he seeks redemption through religion, in the form of Lillian Gish’s Miss Cooper, a character I have some real problems with, but we’ll get to her down the road (or the river) a bit, when I do want to return to the question of female representation.
I want to ask you about the way some of the characters talk. Did Americans in the ‘30s actually use the words “impudent” and “betwixt” a lot? Perhaps they did. There’s certainly a fair amount of folksy diction, but then there are these strangely formalized declarations, like Willa announcing that “My whole body is aquiver with cleanness.” Aquiver? That line did cause me to burst out laughing when she says it, and I couldn’t help but think it’s intentionally absurd. You explained Powell’s preacher rhetoric well, so what’s your overall take on how the other characters speak?
Marc: I’m glad I was able to at least provide some context for Mitchum’s performance. As for the other characters, their dialogue is probably a combination of how people actually spoke and how it would have been portrayed by authors in the 50s. I’m sure “impudent” was common, though when Winters speaks of her body being “aquiver,” I get the sense that she’s co-opting Harry’s ornate language. It’s ok to laugh. The almost hypnotized look on her face, which later turns into full-on hysteria, suggests she’s long been starved for any sense of clarity or purpose.
I won’t get too deep into Gish’s character yet in terms of gender, but I definitely want to talk about religion. Just so you know where I’m coming from: I was raised Catholic, but I’ve been an atheist for many years now. I’m about as secular as one gets, with little patience for art that depends solely on a dogmatic worldview. So what makes The Night of the Hunter different? As you point out, the very existence of Harry Powell is a warning against religious hypocrisy and how it’s used to prey on the vulnerable (and disguise true depravity). But I think the film’s perspective is broader than that.
I mentioned this being a distinctly American film. Christianity was an integral part of everyday life in the South, but from the moment the children escape down the river, Hunter starts to frame the conflict as something more fundamental, even mythic. We’re immersed in images of animals and forbidding landscapes; the key image, of an owl about to attack a rabbit, is not religious at all. The natural order of things. Like Gish says, it’s a hard world for little things— not exactly the central tenet of Christianity, but key to understanding its role in such an unforgiving setting.
So for me, a mere religious/secular divide would have been less interesting than how the film ends up personifying “love” vs “hate,” in a time where belief was a given. Just look at Gish. She’s undeniably an old-school true believer, but she doesn’t mind John mixing up Moses and Jesus, and allows that yes, maybe there were two kings after all. She understands that the meaning of these stories is more important than the shame and fear that Powell just as easily extracts from them. John and Pearl’s journey into the heartland has a mythic quality itself, especially as Laughton’s visuals go into expressionistic overdrive. But while film uses the Bible as its central myth, it’s the means, not the end.
Jim: Forgive me, Marc, but I’m a little confused by what you’re getting at. Are you suggesting that, as the children press on down the river (a river with some mighty strange currents), the mythic quality you identify posits the natural world in opposition to notions of religious order?
And for the record, I’ll match your atheism, and raise it by several levels of open hostility to religion.
Marc: I wouldn’t say that nature and religious order are the opposition here, or even being compared. The sudden intrusion of animals and the outdoors simply opens up the story, and recontextualizes the children’s struggle as something more primal. Like they’re facing the darkness of the world itself, where predators loom and little lost things are at the mercy of strangers. It’s all about feeling, and I consider the first passage on the river to be one of the most lyrical in all cinema.
When I use the word mythic, I’m referring to that shift in setting and tone— we’re now on a journey, the children roaming a strange, desolate land that Laughton stylizes like a dark fairy tale. (I think of everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Hansel and Gretel.) Their “deliverance” is even explicitly compared to finding the orphaned Moses, and to baby Jesus escaping the Massacre of Innocents. Why draw all these parallels? I keep bringing up fairy tales, because I think that’s what Laughton is partly tapping into with his unusual visual influences. Realism, like you say, is out the window. I find that to be a singularly haunting approach for such a violent story, especially in this setting.
So from one atheist to another… though Hunter does present a stark moral universe, religion is just one element that can be used for either good or evil. (Or love/hate, if you will.) Christianity is inextricable from Gish’s character, but for me, that’s secondary to her gentle protectiveness in this threatening world. It’s all couched in Christian language, to be sure. But that would be natural for a 1930s Southern version of the kindly old woman from a children’s story; likewise for Mitchum’s scripture-spouting psychopath, who boils down to (almost literally) the Big Bad Wolf outside grandma’s house. Bible stories are the myths of the American South, and they seep into every scene in one way or another. What I consider brilliant is how Laughton evokes their dark undercurrents to create such an ominous, dreamlike vision of Depression-era America.
Jim: That’s a patient and eloquent response to a crude question from someone who’s sadly lacking in the faery tale department. Although I intellectually understand what you’re saying, there’s no nerve center in me where it can resonate. I wasn’t brought up on faery tales or folklore. I’ve never had more than the slimmest grasp of Roman and Greek mythology. I never got into comic books, or superheroes of any kind, which, I will argue, are a popular modern-day variation of myths and faery tales. There was also no religion in my upbringing, aside from a few feeble attempts by my mother when I was very young, so no lugubrious bible tales were laced into my actualization of the world. In other words, that style of story-telling is only something I recognize the fuzzy outlines of, but don’t really locate meaning in. I’m a fierce modernist/post-modernist, which often leaves me ill-equipped to understand the more formal operations of allegorical narratives. Please forgive my naivete. I’m sure it’s frustrating for you.
What continues to stretch narrative cohesion for me, though, is how the film starts as a kind of dark, suspenseful thriller about a predatory false prophet who hunts down widows with money for the purpose of charming them into marriage, killing them, and stealing their money, which also involves misogyny, self-loathing, and confusing degrees of sincerity about sexual morality, and then, incidentally, because this particular widow, Willa, just happens to have two children, it becomes a story about innocent babes pursued into the wilderness, leading to something. It’s a leap I find more than a little strained. But so be it. The shoe-string cobwebs, cardboard buildings, backward-flowing currents, and selective snowfall keep it amusing enough. What it’s all about, which still eludes me, we’ll save for a little while yet.
I want to talk about Miss Cooper, Lillian Gish’s character, though that may be getting ahead of the story. There are others, like the Spoons (Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe) and Birdie (James Gleason), who play significant roles, and about whom I’d like to hear your observations. And I’ll bring this question up again, as it applies to these characters and others, about why the women so easily fall for Powell, while the men remain skeptical.
Marc: No frustration at all, Jim! You’re making me really think through my reactions so that I’m starting to understand them better myself.
I think no one gets fooled more than Mrs. Spoon, who facilitates Harry’s acceptance by the town and especially by Willa (who is at least initially suspicious, and does eventually find him out). Which is significant, because later Mrs. Spoon is the most visible leader of the mob against Harry. Laughton deliberately casts the crowd as bloodthirsty, contrasting them against John, who we just saw breaking down during Harry’s arrest and refusing to name him in court. One of the film’s many powerful images is Miss Cooper hurrying the children away from the madness, trying the leave the whole bloody business behind.
So if Willa is already damaged when we meet her, Mrs. Spoon is the general populace: well-meaning but susceptible to manipulation as well as vengeful fury. Above all, she is ill-suited to protect the children, which brings me to Uncle Birdie. He promises John he can depend on him, yet he fails to report Willa’s body and is found in a drunken stupor when the children are fleeing for their lives. The film taps into a very childlike fear of having nowhere to turn— no wise adult to make sense of things and keep them safe. When John and Pearl eventually venture out into the wilderness, it’s merely a re-framing of their place in this unforgiving world.
Miss Cooper recognizes this. If her makeshift family and home seems idealistic, it’s in response to the unrelenting ugliness that got us there. Compare how she deals with Ruby meeting with boys to how Harry would, though they supposedly draw from the same scripture. As far as gender dynamics, I’ll start with my general thought that any piece of art approaching 70 years old can’t be held to same standards as today. I’m the first to recognize outdated attitudes, but for it to be a deal-breaker, it depends how central it is to the film. (Birth of a Nation would fail that test.)
Personally, I don’t see too much of that in Hunter. Harry’s pathological misogyny is meant to be taken as evil, and Willa is a complex character with agency, no matter how misguided she is. That really just leaves Mrs. Spoon, and I guess Ruby. (Can’t we cut an impressionable teenage orphan some slack?) The men are more skeptical, but in a very passive, ineffectual way. There are no male “heroes” here, except maybe the short-lived Ben Carson; that’s in distinct contrast with Miss Cooper, who wields a shotgun like Liam Neeson trying to find his daughter. In any case, I don’t see any particular woman as standing in for all women, any more than I see Harry as a comment on all men.
Jim: Marc, my friend, I’m by no means suggesting we judge any film from 1955, not to mention this sort of back-dated example, by the standards of 2021. But we can observe it for what it is, which is a thing in time, captured in its own amber, with a countenance typical of its era. Its primitive features don’t insulate it from examination. Imagine a future anthropologist watching this. She could deduce all kinds of stuff about the ‘30s, or the ‘50s, and much if it less than flattering, least of all the blanket portrayal of women and girls as easy, dimwitted dupes for handsome men. Take it from Cooper herself, in a moment of characteristic, homespun self-loathing, “Girls are such dern fools.” All of that, however, would hardly dissolve the film’s value, or necessarily prevent the anthropologist from enjoying it.
This will no doubt earn me another round of exasperated sighs, but Miss Cooper is the kind of older woman I would have avoided like the plague when I was a child of John’s age. She greets her two new precious charges with a switch, and soon after hauls off and spanks John for some absurdly minor infraction. Depression-era “tough love,” right? For her compassionate protection (I guess that’s what you call it), her little lambs must endure ceaseless rounds of self-righteous sermonizing and pat platitudes, a price certainly less lethal than the one threatened by the Big Bad Wolf, but no less arduous. I suspect Cooper and Powell are intended to be viewed in light of one another, each an inversion of the other, though the frightened little seven-year-old boy in me would instinctively flee in a panic from both. A little way back, you mentioned the film’s “stark moral universe,” in which “religion is just one element that can be used for either good or evil,” outlining the space between Cooper and Powell. I guess I’m considerably less sanguine about the difference, or that stark moral binaries are a useful or accurate portrait of the human condition.
Marc: I definitely agree that moral binaries aren’t a particularly useful way of understanding human nature. But I see Hunter less as a realistic inquiry than a thriller blown up to biblical proportions— a visceral experience that taps into elemental fears and longings along the way. Whether you respond to its expressionistic approach is another matter (one where we clearly fall on different sides). But I do think there’s more psychological complexity than you give it credit for: the weary sadness that underlies Willa’s brainwashing, persisting even after discovering his intent; John reacting to Harry’s arrest like he did to his own father’s; the townspeople becoming a mob; Ruby remaining torn between guilt and wanting to trust Harry.
As for Mrs. Cooper, I remember being intimidated by her as a child, in a way I was by many adults. Still, I like that she’s not wishy-washy or a pure Mother Goose, but a Depression-hardened woman who has decided on her one calling. Sure, she’s old-fashioned with a switch and a Bible. But I feel she reads scripture more like bedtime stories than a lecture, while her line about girls being “dern fools” is accompanied by her embracing Ruby and understanding she’s just acting out to find love.
But since I keep emphasizing the visual aspects, I don’t want to get much further without addressing the film’s look. You’re spot-on naming the influences that make this so unusual for the 50s, particularly the silent era and Fritz Lang. Lang brought the harsh angles and shadowy lighting of German Expressionism to proto-noirs like M; Laughton does the same for the Southern Gothic setting, all while moving from horror to fairy tale to tender drama. (Lang was also fond of exploring mob mentality, which figures strongly into Hunter’s epilogue.) That you thought of Lang as well as Wizard of Oz in a film about a serial killer chasing the two children he just orphaned, is part of what makes this such an outlier.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez captures so many stunning images that I’ll try not to just list them all. But I have to bring up the angular shadows of the room where Harry kills Willa; lingering on Willa’s eerily serene underwater corpse; Harry looming under a lamppost or on a hill, his singing echoing through the valley. Did any of those flourishes help the film go down easier for you?
Jim: Fair enough. Those are all good points, especially Willa’s resignation. Honestly, the bedroom shot, though arresting, is obviously staged to have that effect. I had such a viscerally negative reaction to Powell, and Mitchum’s performance, it’s hard to say I enjoyed any scene with him in it, especially the singing, which really got on my nerves. But yes, the underwater shot of Willa is truly stunning. Best part of the whole movie!
You bring up two things I’m genuinely confused about. Surely no fault of the film, just my own inattention, but why does John react that way to Powell’s arrest? I know it mirrors his reaction to the arrest of his father in the beginning, but I don’t get why he suddenly has this big heart for the predator who’s been stalking him all this time. And secondly, the mob scene, which made me think of Frankenstein. Where are we at that point, since we see characters from John’s and Pearl’s hometown and the place downriver where Cooper picks them up? Or am I completely confused? Well, I guess the answer to that is obvious enough.
Marc: Both good questions. It could be there’s only one town nearby with a courthouse, for both upriver and downriver folks. We see the same guard who was leaving Ben’s execution earlier in the film, in addition to characters from both areas. But geography is definitely not my strong suit.
John’s reaction to Harry’s capture, though, is probably the most moving moment in the film for me. I think it’s instinctive: partly triggered by the trauma of seeing his dad taken away, and partly just wanting all the violence and ugliness to stop. The fact that he finally breaks down on account of the pathetic monster that’s been chasing him is so unexpectedly tender it tears my heart out every time. It continues into the next scene, with John not participating in Harry’s conviction, and Miss Cooper whisking the children away from the ravenous mob. Real love over hate, when it’s least expected. And when that’s not enough, like back when King Herod ordered all the infants be killed, what did little Jesus’ Ma and Pa do? They went a-running.
Jim: Exactly, Mary and Joseph hightailed it to Appalachia. That actually makes a lot of depressing sense.
Or Powell is brought back to the original town (I forget if it has a name) to stand trial, and because John is required to testify, Cooper brings the whole brood up. Do we see anybody else from Cooper’s town? Anyhow, it’s good to know I’m not a complete idiot.
I still don’t get John’s reaction to Powell’s arrest. I’m sure your explanation is correct, but I still don’t get it. I guess the kid could be that big-hearted. If so, he should be careful. It could get him killed.
Okay, so take me through the ending, that drippy, saccharine ending, where snow falls on one building, but not the one behind it. Tell me, please, what this film is all about.
Marc: I won’t argue that the ending isn’t unabashedly sentimental. But it comes at a great cost, and the contrast with the preceding horror helps it go down easier. For me, only the very final moments put too fine a point on it— when Gish looks right at the camera to reiterate that “children will endure.” Such directness would have been less jarring for 50s viewers, but I admit it’s the only time I feel myself having to mentally compensate for the time period. Still, she’s not preaching or moralizing. Instead of ending with “God will provide” or “love will always prevail,” she’s attesting to children’s ability to adapt, and even maintain their innocence, in a hostile world.
It may seem like a platitude, but she’s speaking to a very real phenomenon. It may be the most realistic vision of hope in the film, which puts these “little things” through such a trial that their resilience is the only real miracle. That’s what I see in John, who loses both parents and manages to evade a murderer, yet still ends up showing compassion for Harry. Is that possible for the rest of us, or for those same children as adults? Hunter offers no reassurances there. They could still end up a Willa, or a Mrs. Spoon, or even a Harry Powell (God forbid). But there are Miss Coopers as well, who’ve adapted to this “hard world” in the most loving way they can manage.
I don’t begrudge you finding the final scene saccharine. But John meekly wrapping up an apple as a gift for Miss Cooper— accompanied by a mournful horn version of the melody Pearl sings on the boat— breaks my defenses every time. This film takes an unusual path to its message of affirmation, but that’s precisely what makes it so resonant for me. As a child myself, I was far more impacted by the horror than the light waiting at the end of the tunnel. These days, it’s the light that seems like more of an achievement.
Jim: Okay, I’m going to say one or two more things and let it rest. I think we’ve plumbed our contrasting views on this film pretty exhaustively.
I take it that you see the film being about the endurance of children, or more broadly innocence, in a hostile world. But aside from a bumbling and ineffectual “hunter,” in the form of Harry Powell, who I never feared posed any threat to these kids whatsoever, and some even more ineffectual male protectors who fail to protect, I don’t know what hostilities these children are actually facing. Perhaps the untamed natural world they pass through on their river journey could be seen as hostile, but it never threatens them in any explicit way. We see an owl attack a rabbit, but that’s a rabbit, not a human child. They are, after all, white American children, about as protected and safe a population of children this world has ever known, even during the Depression. I guess that’s one of my central critiques of this film, that it posits a threat that never materializes, that doesn’t actually exist, that is never anything but an expressionistically signposted proposition, which is then tonally muddied and stomped on by some bizarre mixture of religion and vague folklore, punctuated by cringey comic moments and dubious performances.
Marc, I have to give you a boatload, nay, a skiffload, of credit for being an incredibly good sport and enduring my abuse of your favorite movie. You opened my eyes to a different perspective on this kind of expressionistic filmmaking, though I think we stand firmly on either side of this stylistic divide. So on that note, I want to move on to the final part of these conversations where we set aside the film-at-hand and offer up a little bit of something that’s been on our minds lately, which I call “Reverbs”. Other than dark fantasies involving me and blunt objects, what’s been banging around inside your skull lately?
Marc: It’s been a pleasure, Jim, really. I enjoyed the challenge, which was much more illuminating than a love fest would have been.
I would have answered your question pretty differently a few days ago. As it is, I can’t help but think of mob violence after what we witnessed in D.C. this week. It’s not really the kind of mob we see in Hunter, but it’s more evidence that brainwashing is alive and well, willful or not. Even the most obvious false prophets are still tapping into people’s fears and ignorance, whether in the name of religion or “the Constitution.” Plenty of people will try to tie this to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, but there’s a clear difference between a supposed leader inciting a riot for his own benefit (based on complete fabrication) and marginalized groups demonstrating against unchecked state violence. I just hope that the rioters/terrorists don’t enjoy the impunity they expect, especially compared to how peaceful protestors were brutalized all summer.
I’m also hoping that we don’t still have to spend the next two weeks with President Harry Powell at his most unhinged. But I’m afraid that his privilege and impunity will win out, and likely trickle down to those who violently disrupted the electoral process in his name. How’s that for a non-saccharine ending to this conversation?
Jim: We certainly do not live in saccharine times. Nice tie-in with the film. It’s been funny asking this question of my guests since the election. The answers are usually obvious enough, since who isn’t thinking about these huge things blowing up in their faces on a daily basis?
I was going to answer along the same lines, something about the stupidity of Americans, then last night, in the immediate wake of it all, I had this thought about how we’re all trying to catch up to reality. We’re all struggling to do it, everyone everywhere in the world, maybe always, but especially now. Reality is something out in front of us. It scurries forward, elusive. It’s something we all create, of course, continuously, as individuals, as groups, as cultures, as nations. Reality is whatever we make it, and we’ve made it, and it’s gotten away from us, it’s gotten out ahead of our ability to understand it. And if we can’t understand it, we can’t change it, or control it. And why is this thing that we create gotten away from us? Because we’ve stopped fostering it and being responsible for it. We make it, and then we abuse it, we neglect it, we fear it, we chase it away, so we’ve lost control of it. We need to catch up to reality. Some try, but not enough, not nearly enough, and so we live in a state in which we’ve been forsaken by our own determination, by our will to power. I know that’s very abstract and sketchy and even (shock!) allegorical. I could apply it to concrete examples, but that would take more than one paragraph, and a lot more puzzling, and now my puzzler is sore.
Thanks for doing this, Marc. You’re a remarkably gracious guest. This talk was fascinating to me. I love how two or more people can see the same thing so differently. The supremacy of subjectivity is assured, which makes me happy. We’ll have to do it again, when I put a favorite of mine on the chopping block.
Marc: I look forward to it. I think acknowledging subjectivity is undervalued in criticism— real criticism, not instant Twitter reactions– especially when it comes to a medium as visceral as film. However much you know about a movie, it’s either going to hit your nervous system a certain way or not. I’m sure we have many intersections, but this divergence was an energizing place to start. Who knows? Maybe the next one will find us on the same end of the river.
Jim: Thanks, Marc. We’ll do that. And thanks to everyone for reading. Later this month I’m discussing Jacques Demy’s 1967 musical extravaganza The Young Girls of Rochefort with my cyber-buddy Donna (Cinephile at Letterboxd), which, it should go without saying, I’m really excited about, so look out for it!