Classed as a film noir, yet not quite that, but something sui generis, I think, The Night of the Hunter is so fraught with meaning and allusion, that I will just let Magaret Atwood describe it – she can do so much better than I can.
Those are the hands of faux preacher, Harry Powell, who tells the story of mankind with his two tattooed hands. He is a sociopath serial killer who gets close to widows with money by using his piety, his deep voice, and his very heavy eyelids to disarm them. Then he slits their throats. Oh for the days when preachers of the Lord were cast as figures of satire and disrepute!
The film is weird and expressionistic, dark and foreboding (as befits a noir), filled with intense, dream-like passages. In the images below, Harry reaches toward the light with his switchblade while his new wife, realizing he married her for money, opines that it doesn’t matter, because these events led her to her salvation. Then he stabs her – it’s almost a ballet. He tells folks that she ran off, no good strumpet that she is, and he drives her body to the bottom of the nearby lake. Then he plans on how to throttle the secret of her stash out of her two children.
The two children escape downriver on a skiff. When Harry wades into the water and fails to capture them, he lets out a blood curdling scream of anguish. The travel on the river evokes the American wilderness, Huck Finn, and, for me, a TV serial I saw as a boy about some young boys who stumble on a river to the beginning of time after gazing at the dinosaurs in the New York Museum of Natural History.
The frequent shots of reptiles, frogs, birds…going about their business in timeless indifference to the predicament of the children gives the journey the quality of myth, reinforced by the narrative allusions to Moses and Herod. (Not quite what you expect of a noir, right?)
In the end, the children find refuge with a truly pious old woman who takes in stray kids – it’s the depths of The Depression. Talking God-talk doesn’t prevent her from knowing a pious fraud, and facing him down with a shotgun until the law can come and take him away for a hangin’.
A happy ending? The boy tries to prevent the cops from handcuffing him because it recalls to his mind the image of his dead father being arrested after robbing a bank. Later, he refuses to speak against Powell in court. Odds are, the entire ordeal has messed him up for life and his respite is only temporary. Meanwhile, Powell is almost lynched before he can be spirited away for a proper judicial death by the the same narrow minded, credulous and pious folks who invited him into the bosom of their community at the beginning.