Every Thursday, Calhoun Kersten digs deeper into one of film’s most subtext-heavy genres: horror. Spoilers ahead.
Film often embraces its ability to show its viewers a world that they might otherwise never be exposed to, while relying on a combination of dialogue and other traditional literary devices with the power of the image. One such film is the 1955 Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter. The story chronicles the exploits of Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), as he seduces, marries, and subsequently murders a widow whose husband left her a great deal of money. The disguise of a man of God has everyone in the town fooled except for the widow’s children, who see the man for what he is.
Although the dialogue moves the movie along a great deal and certainly spells out the themes for its audience, the accompanying visuals provide chilling scenery to add to the film’s overall atmosphere. One thing worth noting that may be particularly chilling to modern audiences is the treatment of women throughout the film and gender roles as a whole. The Night of the Hunter, through explicit dialogue and explicit visuals, demonizes male figures of the film and discounts the fairer sex throughout most of the film, while giving unparalleled strength to the heroine at the expense of her recognition as a “woman.”
The film’s most immediate observation is about man’s capacity for evil. Not even five minutes into the film, the audience is shown the feet of a dead woman before the film cuts directly to Powell speaking with the Lord about “doing his will.” The audience’s association with Powell as a murderer and a profound misogynist is instantaneous. As if the dialogue isn’t enough, Laughton follows the monologue with the Reverend in a strip club. At one point, he reaches into his pocket and produces a knife that tears through his pocket. This knife is clearly a phallic symbol in terms of its placement and shape, but what is perhaps even more disturbing is Laughton’s equation of the phallus with violence. In short, Laughton makes it painfully clear that Powell is being set up as the villain of the film, and as a director takes the opportunity to barrage us with images of stereotypical masculinity, such as the phallic knife.
However, one of the more complicated male “bad guys” is given very little screen time, but has a lasting presence. That is, of course, the character of Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who robs a bank and kills two guards so that he can provide for his family. While, as the audience, we understand his intentions, it is difficult to fully support them at the expense of two men’s lives. When the police come to take him away, his son John (Billy Chapin) cries out as police continue to assault him. It is the police’s actions that give some of the weight to this scene. They are all dressed in their uniforms that most audience members recognize.
The imagery of police uniforms gives viewers a good idea of “right” and “wrong” and since (in most films) police are shown to be on the side of justice and the morally superior, the audience itself recognizes Ben Harper as being worthy of punishment by society’s standards. Although these are just several male characters, the film is devoid of many other male adult figures. Laughton pays particular attention to how John will grow up to be a man, but that he is not one just yet. Through the few male adult figures in the film, Laughton establishes distrust and even a dislike of them. However, he does little to the women to make them more digestible.
One of the most powerful examples of the disregard for women is illustrated in the character of Willa (Shelly Winters). Once again, Laughton uses the male figures in relation to the strength of his female characters. Although there are many examples of this concept of feminine inferiority, one of the most powerful instances is the scene of her wedding night. The scene opens on her preparing herself for her night of conjugal bliss in the bathroom, but when she opens the door to her bedroom, Powell has his back to her as he lays in the dark. The contrast between Willa bathed in light and Powell cloaked in darkness does a beautiful job of highlighting the differences between the two. As Powell turns to face her, she shrinks back and the viewer sees that the elements of light and dark are no longer so clearly defined.
The darkness of the room seems to be forcing itself onto the light from the bathroom, and almost seems to take over the scene. As this happens, Willa pins herself against the wall, effectively subjecting herself to his harsh stare. Throughout the rest of the scene, Powell commands her both vocally and visually. As he chastises her for wanting to have sex without having any more children, she throws herself to the bed. She once again lowers herself and Laughton makes it visually distinct that Willa is lessened and even passive in relation to Powell’s actions. Although dialogue motivates this scene, there is also a primitive expressiveness to it almost reminiscent of silent films. Although the audience hears Powell command Willa to go over to the mirror, he also forcefully points in the direction of the mirror. Even while facing it, and placing her in the foreground, Laughton is always aware of the male presence in the room.
Through dialogue, Laughton forces the male perspective on his audience. Powell says “The skin of woman, profaned by Adam.” By doing so, he places the male experience as a priority and the experience of women as secondary. This is illustrated in Willa’s surrender on her wedding night, as she collapses to the bed while Powell towers over her. This scene visually indicates the weakness of women, but other scenes such as the Sunday school picnic (when Willa is sitting down and Powell lords over her) or even her death scene (Powell takes out his knife and raises it high to strike her), she remains in bed with arms crossed in a position of repose and complete passivity. Willa’s actions in many ways do a great disservice to the representation of women in film as she passively accepts Powell’s knife, but it is the heroine of the piece who is perhaps most intriguing.
By the film’s close, John as the “hero” has become secondary. Laughton’s emphasis on both John and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) still being children is illustrated with the presentation of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). She is an older woman who has taken in countless orphans before them, and the audience recognizes her as a matronly figure. While her mannerisms are motherly (and subsequently feminine), there is also a complete lack of sexualization of her character. She is rarely seen with any male figures with the exception of Powell, who she directly assaults, and a shopkeeper, to whom she sells eggs and produce. This already puts her in a position of power, as we see Willa brought down and even killed by the male influence in her life.
However, going along with her lack of feminization, there is also a certain masculinity to her. She has a gruff way of speaking and a visible tough-love approach, which is demonstrated as she is shown spanking John at one point. However, her motherly instincts play a large role in the conclusion of the film. When she sees that Powell is after the two children and means to hurt them, she confronts him with a shotgun. This use of the shotgun supplies a phallus for Rachel, with which she can defeat the villain. It is only through her lack of a strong female identity and the assignment of male qualities that the audience sees her as heroine. While it is true that Rachel is able to scare off Powell, she does so at the expense of her femininity.
Throughout the film, The Night of the Hunter gives conflicting accounts of gender roles, demonizing most male adult figures while weakening most of the women. However, the film’s heroine, Rachel Cooper, shows a lack of association with men which may arguably be her saving grace. The Night of the Hunter shows a complexity and a depth to its characters that even in today’s cinema is uncharacteristic. However, its pairing of a strong script and compelling visuals solidify it as a classic and a worthwhile study in gender roles.