Sixty-five years ago, Charles Laughton created a monster. Harry Powell, the villainous preacher at the center of Laughton’s 1955 depression-set thriller “The Night of the Hunter,” is a character both informed by movie monsters and influential in the creation of future ones. Robert Mitchum’s performance recalls elements of Frankenstein and Dracula. Harry’s musical calling card of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and his homicidal MO, marrying and murdering widows to steal their money, are prototypes for Freddy Krueger and “The Stepfather’s” Jerry Blake. There are echoes of the bad reverend’s phallic switchblade in “Peeping Tom’s” killer camera tripod, and his violent religious fanaticism in “Carrie’s” Margaret White.
The influence of “The Night of the Hunter” reverberates throughout cinema, from dialogue call-backs in the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” to re-creations of Harry’s iconic “Love” and “Hate” knuckle tattoos in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and Taika Waititi’s “Boy.” Even Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” pays homage, decorating Robert De Niro’s Max Cady with religious tattoos that make the character into a double Mitchum reference, imbuing one of his best-known roles with the aesthetics of another one.
Mitchum’s Harry Powell is an influential monster not just because of his frightening actions and presence (though they count for a lot), but because his monstrosity flows through every part of him, including, crucially, his theology. Laughton was originally drawn to make “The Night of the Hunter” because of its themes of religious hypocrisy. According to biographer Simon Callow, the gay Laughton believed the church was responsible for him spending most of his life in the closet. In Powell, those repressive attitudes manifest in the way he manipulates his faith to benefit his own agenda, and a fear of sexuality that presents as an obsession with purity. He represents the literal harm that the church as an institution has historically caused vulnerable populations like the LGBTQ+ community, refugees and people of color.
Laughton’s film follows Harry as he’s arrested for car theft, and lands in prison with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man awaiting execution for killing two men during a bank robbery. Harry knows that Ben’s loot is hidden somewhere in his home, and also that the condemned man leaves behind a wife and two kids. The next steps are clear: marry Ben’s widow, find the money and get rid of the whole family.
As soon as he’s released, Harry enacts his plan, claiming to be a former prison employee who’s taken up ministry. His charm, spiritual leadership, and perceived morals quickly win over the judgmental townspeople, including Ben’s guilt-ridden widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Ben’s son John (Billy Chapin), however, remains suspicious. John and Pearl are the only ones who know the whereabouts of the stolen cash, and have sworn to secrecy.
If we weren’t already aware that someone claiming to be a man of the cloth as a cover for murder was bad news, Laughton uses visual language around Harry that communicates an almost otherworldly malevolence. Harry enters John and Pearl’s lives like a boogeyman, casting an exaggerated shadow across their bedroom wall. Many of his scenes in the Harper house bear a German Expressionist influence, with cinematographer Stanley Cortez employing claustrophobic lines and shadows, projecting a feeling of entrapment.
When Harry eventually murders Willa, Mitchum leans over Winters with his switchblade like a vampire preparing to strike, his arm making a wide sweep over her body. Laughton later shows her corpse, bound up in the family’s Model T at the bottom of the river, as Mitchum imbues “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with creepy affect. After Willa’s death, Pearl and John escape. As Harry chases them, Mitchum’s arms go out straight in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, followed by a guttural, inhuman moan when he loses them.
With Harry hot on their heels, Pearl and John ride the river in a rowboat. Finally, they meet Rachel (Lillian Gish), a kind woman who fosters a gaggle of kids on her farm. In contrast to the ominous music and heavily shaded cinematography that define Harry, Rachel is accompanied by charming upbeat music and idyllic scenery. Laughton and Cortez shoot Gish and her young wards like a mother goose with her goslings, with Rachel perpetually hunched forward in a long dress as the children trail dutifully behind. She projects a practical, maternal presence, someone who can spot nonsense a mile away, but never judges her charges for the childish mistakes they sometimes make.
Rachel, like Harry, is a Christian, but she teaches her young brood love and acceptance. Both characters refer to the Bible often. Harry’s references are often vague, casual mentions of judgement and the sinfulness of women and sex (interestingly, he never once invokes Christ’s name directly). Rachel, however, is more specific, telling the kids stories about vulnerable characters looking for safety—baby Moses in the bulrushes, or Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the run from King Herod. Rachel helps John and Pearl recover from their traumas, but their tentative bond is tested when Harry shows up looking for them.
I first watched “The Night of the Hunter” in 2012, while working as an intern for a college ministry in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time, I was struck by its dual portrayals of faith, which shared recognizable traits with Christians I knew. I witnessed Rachel in the people I saw at church every Sunday: the university lecturer who taught Sunday school to five-year-olds, the lesbian couple who hosted youth group weenie roasts at their farm, or the parishioner who found volunteers to make dinner for our college ministry’s weekly Bible studies.
Harry, however, appeared in far more troubling places. It’s easy to recognize him in any leader who teaches selfishness, hatred, and repression while claiming to have spiritual authority to do so. Harry is present in Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel and Jerry Falwell Jr.’s racist rants and close association with Donald Trump and right-wing provocateurs like Charlie Kirk and Nigel Farage—not to mention his personal scandals. He’s there in Mike Pence’s evangelical culture warrior status, asking believers to pray for the country while supporting racist, sexist, xenophobic policies. In June, when Donald Trump had police kick Black Lives Matter demonstrators off the lawn of St. John’s Episcopal Church so he could pose with a Bible for photos, I saw Harry standing in the background.
In “The Night of the Hunter,” Laughton’s two religious archetypes, Rachel the nurturer and Harry the boogeyman, go head-to-head in the movie’s most affecting scene. After trying to take John and Pearl, Harry arrives at Rachel’s farm in the dead of night to threaten them. Rachel sits inside holding a shotgun, while Harry stands under a streetlamp. He starts to sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” once more, a taunt to let Rachel know he’s out there, and that he’s stronger than her. But as he sings, Rachel joins in, singing the harmony. She knows this hymn, too, and she’s not about to let Harry co-opt the most important part of her identity.
I find this moment to be a stunningly accurate metaphor for being a progressive person of faith in a cultural climate often defined by the church’s loudest, most theologically wrongheaded representatives. The faith community I love could not be further from Harry Powell. We run food drives for families in underserved neighborhoods, doubling up distribution days during the pandemic. We protest on behalf of Black lives and support LGBTQ+ individuals. We believe women should serve at all levels of leadership, not just coffee hour and Sunday school, and that we have ownership over our own bodies.
The Harry Powells of the world do not represent who I see when I look at the diverse, loving, social justice-minded individuals who make up my experience as a Christian. They do, however, direct the narrative far too often. Right now, some of the faith’s most vitriolic representatives sit in our government’s highest offices. They run (or ran) universities dedicated to indoctrinating new generations with a judgmental and suffocatingly narrow theology. Being a progressive Christian means constantly reclaiming and re-learning my faith in the face of those challenges and evaluating the elements I’ve had to reject and deconstruct.
It doesn’t take much for Rachel to eliminate Harry; she scares him off with a shotgun blast and turns him into the police. It’s a somewhat simplistic resolution, given the institutional force Harry represents. The core concept, however, is still encouraging. Harry looks like a monster, but he’s nothing more than a bully, and bullies can be beaten once they’re revealed for who they are. If the last four years have shown me anything, it’s that there are more monsters in more places than any of us thought. But I also know that those monsters can be defeated when we name them, reject them, and hold each other up instead of loudmouth charlatans. I like to think Laughton knew that, too.