Histories of Cinema
March 15, Friday
19:00 Introduction by Santos Zunzunegui
20:00 The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955, 93 min.)
During the credits, the following song plays: “Dream, little one, dream / Dream, my little one, dream. / Though the hunter in the night / Fills your childish heart with fright. / Fear is only a dream / So dream little one, dream.”
Against the backdrop of a starry night, a woman (we will later find out that her name is Rachel Cooper (Lilian Gish) and that she provides shelter and education to abandoned children in the Deep South during the Great Depression) speaks to a constellation of young faces and to us, the audience:
“Now, you remember, children, how I told you 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 ye be judged", because I explained that to you. And then the good Lord went on to say: "Beware of false prophets [fades to an aerial view of the Ohio river and a small town on its banks] which come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”. Ye shall know them by their fruits. [The camera slowly zooms in on a group of children playing next to a house where they discover the body of a woman] A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit [from above, the car of the preacher Harry Powell, himself addressing God] Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
The hanged man
After robbing a bank, police fugitive Ben Harper (Peter Graves) makes it home and hands over his 10,000-dollar loot to his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). He begs them to hide it and never to reveal its whereabouts (inside the girl's doll), not even to their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). He is arrested and taken to prison. There, sentenced to death, he will share a cell with the fake preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) while waiting to be hanged for his crimes. Harper's dreams betray him, and Powell (the justice system is still unaware that he is a dangerous serial killer of widows) plots how to recover the hidden treasure when he finishes his short prison sentence.
With Harper dead, Powell leaves prison and heads for the small town to charm the community with his preaching, pitting good against evil in a fight symbolised by the words tattooed on finger joints of both hands (LOVE on the right; HATE on the left). The widow Willa is seduced by his good looks and his complex sexual charisma. His only objective is to find the children who guard the secret of the stolen money. After marrying Willa, he uses all of his skills to get rid of the mother (her body ends up at the bottom of the river) and win the children's trust. While John stands firm, the somewhat weaker Pearl ends up revealing where the money is hidden.
Against the odds, the children manage to escape from the brutal traps laid by the preacher—now like a wild beast—and embark upon a dream-like journey along the vast and dark Ohio river. Following its current beneath a starry sky, they are rocked by the song of the animals (the croaking of the frogs, the sudden movement of a fish in the depths, the vibration of a spider’s web) that bear witness to their voyage, while Pearl sings a nostalgic song that evokes memories of their mother (“Once upon a time...”).
At the same time, the false prophet continues his tireless search for the children, becoming an evil shadow that follows them as they flee.
A steadfast tree with branches for many birds
Following a long journey along riverbanks devastated by the economic crisis ravaging the Deep South, John and Pearl are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lilian Gish), an old woman who acts as fairy godmother to helpless children. She gives them shelter, food and education. When Powell turns up to demand his rights to custody, Cooper refuses to hand them over. Gun at the ready, she defends her home from the wiles of the evil preacher. Having failed in his attempt to locate the money, Powell is arrested to the astonishment of John who, just like when his father was arrested, is traumatised by the situation. The preacher is judged and sentenced to death. The people who once worshipped him now lead those who want to lynch him.
Epilogue: The children bear it all
And Christmas arrived, and the dark memories were covered in white for some time. It’s time to open Christmas presents. The children give Rachel (who is hard at work in the kitchen) their modest gifts. John has picked an apple from a fruit bowl and wrapped it in a crocheted table mat. When he gives it to Rachel, she states excitedly that “That's the richest gift a body could have”.
While Rachel prepares Christmas Eve dinner, she addresses us as the camera zooms in on her face: “Lord save little children. (…) The wind blows and the rains are cold. (…) Yet they abide”. John opens his present in the adjacent room. It’s a watch. “Be nice to have someone round the house”, Rachel tells him, “who can give me the right time of day”.
Rachel gets back to work in the kitchen. She seems to be gazing inwards as she utters the final words: “They abide and they endure.”
Snow falls on Rachel Cooper’s house.