False Prophets and the Dangers of Religion in ‘Night of the Hunter’

Film is, in and of itself, not all together different from religion. Both are anchored in rituals and the desire for its audience to take away something from the experience and apply it to everyday life. However, film manages to apply its lessons through a variety of tactics. While the Catholic Church, for example, is limited to the teachings of the Bible, film is much more subjective. The importance of the film, or even the theme, is determined by the audience. They soak in the images that the director presents them with and produce their own interpretation. Although this may sound simple, the act itself is very complex. Furthermore, when film is commenting on religion, the actuality of these separate institutions is frequently conflicting. One such example is the 1955 Charles Laughton film, Night of the Hunter. It tells the story of a seemingly pious man who uses the word of God to deceive those around him for his own personal gain. Although this is the only film Charles Laughton directed, he manages to communicate a rather complicated relationship with the church. He uses the character of Harry Powell to attest to the evils of the institution, but also supplies a decent moralistic woman in the form of Rachel Cooper. Although the film is bookended with voiceover that suggests the positive power of religion, the negative treatment of religion in Night of the Hunter is most memorable. However through a variety of characters Laughton demonstrates religion, in all its complexity, as violent and misogynistic but also, in the film’s end that religion is overwhelmingly good.
Although the film is filled with various themes, the idea of religion and violence being intertwined is one of the most visually present. One of the first scenes the audience is shown is Reverend Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, as he delivers a monologue in which he claims to speak to God and says that he knows the things He hates. Next, the film shows Powell in a strip club watching a scantily clad woman dance. He clenches his fist in anger and reaches into his pocket where he produces a knife. No more than 5 minutes into the film viewers see this concept of God as vengeful and violent. While some interpretations of the Bible do deal primarily with God, or Yahweh in some teachings, as vengeful, the film goes on to show that this man has little to do with the word of the Lord, but uses it as a pretense to justify his actions. One such example is in the case of Willa, Harry’s wife. The film makes it clear that Harry’s marriage to Willa is not one of love, but the viewers are the only ones aware of his ulterior motive. Even Willa herself thinks it odd that he would deny himself “the sins of the flesh” on his own wedding night, but he uses his religious views to guilt her into feeling shameful for her “carnal thoughts. Religion is almost immediately equated with guilt, but its tie to violence from the film’s beginning is still strong. Throughout the film, more frequently than not, there is an association with the words of the Lord and the violent actions of Harry, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Powell even goes so far at one point, after having done “His word”, to say, “Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord… “ This goes to show Powell’s understanding of religion itself as a violent institution. However, perhaps the strongest example of this idea of religion and violence is in Powell’s actual execution. Although the film is full of references that Rev. Powell is a violent being and he has killed before, the audience is only shown one instance, right before he murders Willa. Once again, the scripture is associated with violence when one of the last things he says before striking Willa and then murdering her is “Are you through praying?” However, since the film is a 1955 picture there is little violence shown onscreen, even Willa’s murder is done offscreen. However, this association with the imagery of violence and even the discussion frequently follows Powell’s talk of the Lord.
However, Powell’s arguable abuse of religion to justify violence is not the only misuse of religion in this film. Religion is also seen as a means to keep women subjugated. What is perhaps most disturbing in Night of the Hunter is that, although Powell is the strongest example of a misogynist, he is far from the only one. As previously mentioned, one of the opening scenes is the Reverend’s diatribe on “perfume-smellin’ things”. The film makes it clear through dialogue that Powell’s victims tend to be women. However, Laughton also assaults the female audience with imagery. When Powell is in the strip club and he uses the knife, the knife itself appears to be a phallic object. It is immediately equated with violence against women. Although this is the first example of misogynistic behavior towards women, it is far from the last in this film. Even on the honeymoon between the two, Willa prepares herself to be joined in matrimonial bliss. Before she even leaves the bathroom, the knife resurfaces. She chuckles to herself and says “men”, once again reminding the audience of the knife as a phallic object. Harry seems to suggest this idea that if a woman is to enjoy sex, she is somehow impure, an idea disturbingly well and alive today. He makes it perfectly clear when Willa comes out of the bathroom and he criticizes her for presenting herself to him. He even goes so far as to command her, “Do as I say.” in his attempt to shame her for wanting to have recreational sex. As he scolds her, the audience almost sees her regress to a child as she answers in simple, one-word responses. Another interesting scene that blends this notion of women’s sexuality as shameful takes place at the church picnic. In this scene, the idea of piety and righteousness is once again equated with women’s distaste for sex. One of the supporting characters says, “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning.” Although this line itself is very telling, the setting in which it is said is just as crucial. The church picnic tells the viewer a great deal about the values of the people. The idea that sex is for procreation is one thing, but this concept that a woman shouldn’t enjoy sex, even if a child is born as a result, is antiquated at best. The same character goes on to say, in relation to the idea of marrying for sex, “That’s somethin’ for a man. The good Lord never meant for any decent woman to want that.” This suggests that the concept of sex being enjoyed itself isn’t entirely ludicrous, but that for a woman to want to have good sex is almost sinful. This furthers the subjugation of women and the fact that these things are said by a woman seems to suggest that these values aren’t entirely her own, but that she was taught to think that way. Although viewers see religion used in a variety of ways, the use of religion to oppress them is perhaps most offensive.
Although religion is demonized in many ways in the film, religion does prevail in the film’s end. The overwhelming moral of the story is that religion itself is not evil, but that people may abuse it. One of the clearest examples is the Reverend himself, who “bore false prophet” according to Rachel. However, the more overwhelming example is the court at the end of the film. They cry for Powell’s blood, yelling “He’s Satan hiding behind the cross!” Although they recognize his inappropriate use of religion as justification, they themselves use it to justify mob rule. It is the film’s only truly pious character, Rachel Cooper who warns at the film’s beginning to beware the way people use religion. Overall, the film itself is what is called a Southern gothic parable. It is a story with a religious theme designed to suggest what is right in the world and what is wrong. Although it uses religion to its own ends, the intention is the most noble of the film. It suggests that the word of the Lord can be used for evil, but that the strength of the words is in their ability to inspire good. The film’s conclusion illustrates this by deviating from what is common in most motion pictures, even today. While the film clearly demonizes Rev. Powell for his mistreatment of others and his hiding behind God, it never shows us what becomes of him. Most films delight in the villain getting his or her comeuppance, but this film spares Powell the torture and the humiliation. In the spirit of the film, it is merciful in its treatment of Powell.
Night of the Hunter illustrates the complicated relationship between religion being used for bad, such as violence and the misogynistic attitudes of the film, and good, as is shown in Rachel’s parable. The violence is both in the dialogue and in through some of the imagery as Powell uses violence to get what he wants while hiding behind the word of God. It also suggests that religion is frequently used to subjugate women, by denying them the same privileges, such as the enjoyment of sex, that are afforded men. However, most importantly, it shows that religion’s intentions are for good, but that people misuse it. The film’s journey is a conflicted one, showing the demons of religion, but in the end, the idea that religion is good overwhelms.

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