A Hard World for Little Things

Salvation is a last minute business, boy.

– Rev. Harry Powell

It’s a hard world for little things.

No film captures the truth of that statement better than Charles Laughton’s 1955 thriller, The Night of the Hunter. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Girsh, its a brutal film – a dark fairy tale, at once old fashioned and ahead of its time.

Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell, with his tattooed knuckles and mouthful of scripture is a murderous grifter – a travelling man, who preys on the little things…the innocent, the naïve, the gullible. Powell is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, and he views his flock only as meat for the beast. Superficially charming, but with an edge that only adds to his compelling personality, Powell is a dark force that descends suddenly on his victims, with no warning, taking what he wants and justifying it as the will of God.

There is a rawness to Mitchum’s performance as Powell – a sort of earthy ferocity that drives the character forward through his every moment of screen-time. Powell is erudite, but not wise. Cunning, but not intelligent. He is a thing of cruel lusts and needs, but cagey enough to hide that side of himself from those not directly in his sights. Even so, something of his true self simmers in his voice, his eyes, the way he walks. The way his hands clench around themselves as he discusses his tattoos hint that he wants nothing more than to throttle the world – to break it to his will.

For all his outward piety, there is a monster under Powell’s skin. And it takes only a little pressure for it to rip its way free. He marries Shelley Winters’ Willa, seeking the money her husband hid away, but he cannot resist toying with her – indulging his instincts before finally doing away with his unassuming bride. Her children, wiser by far, flee into the night before he can do the same to them and he pursues like some ogre out of a fairy tale.

And there is much of the fairy tale about that pursuit. Laughton’s choice to emulate the German expressionistic films of previous decades only adds to this dreamlike quality, making it a sequence of long shadows and broken moments. As the children flee down the river, Powell follows, his voice haunting their trail. The good reverend is a direct forebear to later implacable monsters such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, with a wit and wickedness to match Freddy Kruger. His relentless pursuit of the children is equal parts mythic and nightmarish – a wild hunt, though one pared to the symbolic bone. Something wild and inimical, in pursuit of the undeserving innocent. Wherever the children go, however far they flee, their tormentor is always there in the distance, drawing nearer with every passing moment, singing his mocking hymns.

But like all monsters, Powell has his nemesis. A force of good to match his evil, the sister love to his brother hate, the spinster Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Girsh. And when the two collide, it is Powell who finds himself the hunted, before he is at last brought to bay and finally captured for his crimes. Cooper is the Van Helsing to Powell’s Dracula – a woman wise to the ways of the Harry Powell’s of the world, and capable of flinging his own pious darts back at him, of matching him hymn for hymn. It is their struggle for the souls of the children which dominates the climax of the film, and sees Powell’s inner monster rage forth with a wild, yelping screech. But Cooper does not flinch, and in the end, Powell is done in by his own savagery and impatience.

Yet Powell is no more diminished in defeat than Dracula or Frankenstein’s creation. He has made his mark, done his damage and though the world – and his victims – will eventually heal, the film makes clear that the shadow of Harry Powell will forever stalk them. His memory will linger on, well past the date of his demise.

But there is hope. Powell’s memory lingers, but so too does the kindness of his nemesis, Cooper. And the latter may well prove the stronger.

It’s a hard world for little things. But they abide and endure.

There’s too many of them. I can’t kill the world.

-Rev. Harry Powell

4 thoughts on “A Hard World for Little Things

  1. One of my favorites. Several years back when I was still at the Nickelodeon Theater, I curated a Southern Gothic film series, which was pretty much just an excuse for me to get to see this film and Down By Law on the big screen.

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