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The Demonic Preacher

Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) offers insight into the twisted mind of Harry Powell, a charismatic pretender who marries and murders widows for their fortunes in the belief that he is carrying out God’s will. Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, manipulates his faith to benefit his own villainous agenda. He wins the heart of a widow by the name of Willa, and moves on to prey on her children, John and Pearl, for information about the location of their father’s money. Mitchum exceeds in portraying Harry’s monstrous and homicidal psychopathology, as a character that has been warped by a peculiar vision of religiosity, sexuality, and criminality.

Laughton’s direction of The Night of the Hunter attempts to expose the dominant patriarchal archetypes of 1950’s Christianity through the character Harry Powell. By associating the film’s villain as a religious preacher, Laughton is undeniably taking a stance against certain aspects of Christian fundamentalism. In the character of the Preacher, the film forms a caricature that represents the totality of oppressive fundamentalism. Harry’s status as a religious man gives him the power to impose onto Willa, John and Pearl’s family dynamic. As a man that studies faith, he is predisposed to be a trustworthy figure, regardless of the apparent act he is putting on. In his arrival, Powell’s overt act is depicted by the dramatic story behind his “love” and “hate” knuckle tattoos. Reminiscent of a sport’s commentator, Powell exclaims, “Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life,” while putting on a show with his two fists. With his right-hand overpowering his left, Powell shouts, “Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left-hand hate is down for the count!” While this scene depicts Harry’s theatrical performance as a religious man, the story he tells anticipates the events that would unfold later in the film. Claiming to be a walking battle between "love" and "hate," Powell’s false pretenses eventually allow hate to prevail. His faith is rooted in brutality, as he utterly convinces himself that his hateful crimes against widows and their children are justified in the name of God.

From its beginning, The Night of the Hunter makes it clear that the values of patriarchal Christianity align with the oppression of women. Harry Powell’s warped view of sexuality originates in his denial of women’s independence, believing the world to be a place for women to submit to masculine dominance. Before we witness Powell’s hold on Willa, we observe him clenching his “HATE” fist in physical agony at the sight of a women displaying her sexual nature in a burlesque performance. Powell’s monstrous nature is rooted in this patriarchal view of women, as he believes it is his duty by God to expel women who arouse men’s carnal instincts. By manipulating Willa into marriage, he is simultaneously able to convince her that she must be cleansed in the eyes of God. Harry’s sadistic view of sexuality is evidenced by his speech on their wedding night, as he preaches that the women’s body is solely meant to be “the temple of creation and motherhood,” and nothing more. Powell’s words demonstrate the dangers of this negative view of sex, exposing how the patriarchy controls women by containing their sexuality within motherhood. His manipulation on the basis of sexuality contributes to his homicidal psychopathology, by leading him to become immersed in his own desires to the point that he cannot separate true good from evil. Using religion as his excuse for his twisted view of women, Powell’s mental state has become so immensely tainted, past the point of fixing.

Although Harry Powell presents himself to society as an ardent believer in God, he will always be associated with criminality. Laughton first introduces the Preacher as Ben Harper’s cellmate, where he is on trial for car theft. Once free from prison, Powell proceeds on a quest to acquire Harper’s money— a feat that will criminalize himself even further. Once establishing the story that he was a former prison employee who’s turned toward ministry, Powell begins his torment, which is masked beneath scripture quoting, sermons and the word of God.

It is with his religious beliefs and his view of women that Powell is able to carry out the crimes against Willa, John and Pearl. His homicidal psychopathology keeps him from understanding that he is a criminal in any sense. Apart from the obvious criminality of murdering Willa, I believe Harry’s true crime is his claim to spiritual authority. As a man that teaches selfishness, hatred, and repression, he bears an erroneous reputation to his faith. In one of the film’s concluding scenes, Powell taunts Rachel— John and Pearl’s newfound caregiver— as he sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” In a moment of true faithful power, Rachel sings the harmony of the song as a way to express her unwillingness to back down from the monster. Here, Laughton comments on the idea that while religion is the backbone of Harry’s criminality, it can also be his demise.

In closing, Harry Powell’s distorted view of religiosity, sexuality and criminality contribute to the Preacher’s monstrous and homicidal psychopathology throughout The Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s choice of a religious man as the film’s villain allows him to subvert fundamentalist Christianity, as Powell justifies his crimes as God’s intentions. By extending the villainous behavior as a target on women and sexuality, the film deepens its meaning by exposing the dangers of patriarchal manipulation. By associating criminal behavior to a religious man, The Night of the Huntersuccessfully reproduces the demonic presence in 1950’s Christianity that had destructive effects on gender and womanhood.


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