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The Night of the Hunter, Directed by Charles Laughton

United Artists, September 29, 1955 (US)

Screenplay: James Agee and Charles Laughton, based on the novel by Davis Grubb

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, and Gloria Castillo

Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish): It’s a hard world for little things.

There’s nothing more frightening than being a kid. It’s like being trapped in a toy box crammed with evil clowns. Evil dolls. Evil grown-ups. Evil shadows that dance like clunky ghost bones against your bedroom wall. It’s a world of dark, of crooked, of bent and moaning boughs. Dead leaves and dead lawns. Black and white pumpkins that roll faceless down warped porch steps. Something is coming to get you. You don’t know what it is but you know it’s there. On the roof. Under your bed. It’s whispering softly like cold grave breath against your ear. It blows like church gowns across your pillow. Roll over. Don’t touch it. Don’t kiss it. It’ll suck your eyeballs out, dig your heart out with a teaspoon.

Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum): I can hear you whisperin’ children, so I know you’re down there. I can feel myself getting’ awful mad. I’m out of patience children. I’m coming to find you now.

The night is dark. The soul of man like a long black river. It snakes through the rushes. Through the broken soil. Past the hollow eyes, the empty men. Whimpering mothers. Lost children. The farms. The plantations. Big cities and lonely hamlets. Frozen hearts. The workers who plunge their filthy hands deep into the dirt. The twisted roots pulled up and wiped away from the brown. The baskets on sad backs bent to the wind, backs creaking towards the west. All humanity lost, lost in the labor of the land: exhausted and exhumed, examined by a mean sun laying waste to the waters, burning necks red, and birch black on the hard wooden decks. The ship is lost not finding a sea. The skiff floats on. All the trouble. All the toil. All the children cry. Will we ever get away? Will we ever find rest? Sweet lord, does evil never sleep?

Harry: [noticing John staring at the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles] Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. 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. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other.

This film scares the living shit out of me. Maybe it’s the doll. Maybe because it’s in black and white. The dialogue. The setting. Mostly because of the unforgettable performance by Robert Mitchum. He’s just way too real. Like some hallowed horse demon rising out of the shadows of the night. Everything is set through the children’s perspective. You are a child all over again. Trembling and weak under the covers. Your eyes are wet. You wet the bed. The shadows creep into your room like long witch fingers. The tall hat. The man in black. The eerie, other-worldly song and voice that just will not—just won’t!—end. “Leaning, Leaning … safe and secure from all alarms.” It might just never end.

Rachel: A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt fruit bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Underlying all the evil is a strong social message. James Agee didn’t write the screenplay for nothing. These were tough times. A tough South. A husband just didn’t kill his wife for no reason. There were homeless hustlers on the loose. Neo-carpetbaggers on the run. Preachers and gypsies. Hobos and hounds from hell all fighting for the same raw potato to eat. The land was a hard bowl of dust but the hearts of men even more so. Children ran away looking for something better. They never found it. Girls looked for love and sugar under the big lights of the city. Soon after their eyes were rubbed in salt. Everyone was on the take. On the grab. Everyone cried out for more because the world was less. Down. Done-in. Depressed. Don’t stay the night or they’ll steal your hat and shoes. Everyone was either working to death or running away from it. Worse, someone was chasing you. Chasing you mighty hard.

Ben Harper (Peter Graves): I got tired of seein’ children roamin’ the woodlands without food, children roamin’ the Highways in this here Depression, children sleepin’ in old abandoned car bodies in junk heaps. And I promised myself that I’d never see the day when my young-uns had want.

But there’s hope at the end. There always is isn’t there? Someone to take you in. Give you a meal. A bath. All the wandering orphans of the night. The bed is fluffy. The doors locked. A fire rages downstairs. Say your prayers. Say goodnight. The skiff floats on. The black man with the knife rides west. Do you think he’ll ever pass again?

Rachel: You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are humanity’s strongest. They abide.

Harry: There are too many of them. I can’t kill the world.