Welcome to another edition of Friday Flix. This week we’re going way back to good old 1955, although the movie itself is set during the American Great Depression. Come along with me through the film that is The Night of the Hunter.
Like suspenseful movies? This one won’t disappoint. I still get the heebie jeebies even with how old it is and that I’ve seen it a few times. This well-written story that stands the test of time. It’s available to watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime and probably your local video store—if you still have one.
It stars a bunch of people you probably don’t know, including Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, and a guy you may have heard of, Peter Graves. The two kids who also star in the film are decent actors but I don’t think went on to do much else.
And as usual, here comes my SPOILER ALERT.
I don’t intend to give everything away, but for those who don’t like to hear anything before they watch a movie, you’ve been warned. And now a movie plot description from IMDB.com:
A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery.
The film opens in a strangely wonderful way with an older woman quoting scripture about wolves in sheep’s clothing. You see the smiling, innocent faces of several children, somehow protected and safe with this mysterious woman. As she’s describing knowing the evil deed doers by their fruits, we cut to a scene of children discovering a dead body.
Already we’ve received foreshadow that innocence will be lost in this story. And we see the dastardly fruit of the evil doer right before we meet him.
Enter our faux-preacher Harry Powell who is immediately trying to justify his actions to God and us by pointing to things he sees as evil. We realize he believes he’s doing the world a favor.
This is the beginnings of a complex character. He’s supposed to be a preacher, someone you think you can trust, but he’s not. He even tries sounding like a preacher, talking to God as though God justifies his actions. He is already that wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Then to remind us of exactly what kind of man he is, he’s arrested for driving a stolen vehicle and sentenced to a certain penitentiary which will help the plot get moving along nicely in a few minutes.
To be honest, I’m not sure the first five minutes of the film was really necessary to the story, although it does lay a decent foundation for the villain and it sets the tone of the movie quite nicely. But this movie is 57 years old, and probably written for the audience of its day.
Novelists, I hope what you can take away from this is it’s wonderful to foreshadow what will happen in your novel, but don’t do it in an unnecessary way. Although I suppose if it was written with the multiple protagonist perspective of Harry and the kids he’ll soon meet, it might work. But again, remember that what works in the movies may not work in a novel, it’s just important to understand why it worked so you can figure out something great for your own story beginning.
All right, so then we meet John and Pearl, sitting in a field of flowers emphasizing their innocence. These kids are our protagonists. To give us an idea of their relationship, John is busy helping Pearl fix her dolly. He never has to say, I’m a good big brother, he shows us that.
Their Pa shows up with money he’s stolen and decides to hide it in Pearl’s doll before the police show up and arrest him. Pa makes John promise to look after Pearl and never tell a soul about the money. Then the police come and take their Pa away. Ma shows up as they’re leaving, stunned and unable to do much more than be stunned—letting us know it’s John we’ll have to look to for strength.
Pa ends up in the same penitentiary as faux-preacher Harry who learns about the money, though not enough to know where to look before Pa is hanged for murder. Now we know where the wolf will head next.
And just how does he get into John’s and Pearl’s life? I’m sure you probably guessed this.
Harry marries Mom. There’s a honeymoon scene where you wonder, Yikes, what’s this creep going to do? I really thought this would be the big entrance for the pervert in him, but clever villain that he is he uses this moment to mess with her head so badly she becomes fiercely loyal to him for the rest of the story. (I’m being purposely vague so I don’t spoil the cinematic moment for you.) He knew his audience well and played them right. Like I said, I love villains that mess with people’s minds.
There are several great moments, but to name a few, first we have Mom completely brainwashed by Harry and preaching his good word to the town folks. Instead of being surrounded by lamps or other forms of light it’s torches—and not just any kind of torches, but large flame torches, so that we subconsciously associate the scene with Hell. Do you ever think about the environment of your story and how you can emphasize certain emotions with environment? Certainly you wouldn’t want to be as obvious as saying something like: their faces lit by the flames of hellfire torches, but I hope recognizing the symbolism can help you to think of how you can best represent the mood and emotion of your scenes in subtle ways.
There’s a scene where Pearl is making paper dolls out of the money, and John is trying to hide all the money before Harry finds it. I especially love this scene because it’s almost a gentle intensity. We, the audience, know exactly what’s at risk for everyone. Sometimes knowing what’s going to happen before the characters do can build up the suspense you need to keep readers engaged.
At one point the kids are basically running for their lives and he chases them like the careful predator tracking his prey. I’d already seen the movie and I was on the edge of my seat for those kids. That’s good writing!
The very end of the story there’s a parallel to what happened at the beginning that affects John in such a profound way it’s gut-wrenching. Throughout the movie you see him being strong and almost fearless and then it’s like this one thing causes everything to unravel in the end.
I’m just so impressed with such a well-weaved story, and it’s really no surprise that even 57 years later this movie still can hold its audience captivated. These are the kinds of stories we should be telling—the ones that when people read them or see them 57 years later they’re still impressed with what they find. We can do it if we refuse to settle for mediocrity—and more specifically not settling with being “good enough” for publication. Our stories need to shine like a full moon so everyone can’t help but look at them in amazement.
Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is watch the movie and list the plot points that impressed you the most. List things about Harry the faux-preacher you thought made him an excellent villain. Is there anything you can incorporate into your stories from you learned watching the movie? Has it furthered your understanding of great villains? What are some characteristics you believe a good villain needs to have in order to be believable?
One more interesting tidbit. The director of the film wasn’t very good with children, so guess who ended up directing the children during the movie? Yeah, 100% creepy.