I find myself listening to a chorus of children singing in a haunting, eerie melody.
I must’ve gotten lost somewhere. I’m supposed to be watching The Night of the Hunter, a film where Robert Mitchum, well— he loves hate and hates love. But here I am, and instead there are children singing to me, the lyrics assuming I’m a child:
Dream, little one, dream / Oh the hunter in the night / Fills your childish heart with fright / Fear is only a dream / So dream, little one, dream.
It’s those last two lines, sung by (seemingly) harmless children’s voices that stay on my mind for an uncomfortably long time. “Fear is only a dream,” they tell me. “So dream, little one, dream.” They want me to be afraid. I am a child, and they want me to be afraid.
Well, I am. When watching The Night of the Hunter, I take the place of a small child– growing and learning more and more of the messages underlying the story. The film, made in 1955, is about children. Oh, sure, it starts with Robert Mitchum, a “preacher,” talking to God in his car after a lazy afternoon murder, but soon after we are shown a family—in particular, a son and his father. The father had just robbed a bank and killed two men. He had already resigned to the fact that he would be hung; the police are not far behind him.
In that poignant scene the father struggles to find time to stash the loot and say his goodbyes to his beloved son—he makes the boy swear to never reveal the location of the cash (in his sister’s doll) and to never give it up. The boy tearfully agrees, and he watches the police drag his father away to be hung. In the days before his hanging, the father shares a cell with Mitchum’s character. One night, he murmurs about the hidden cash in his sleep—and that his children know where it is. Some days after that, he is hung and Mitchum is released.
Ever the opportunist, Mitchum decides to find his cellmate’s family. When he does, the real story begins. No one sees Mitchum, a charismatic preacher, for what he really is except the boy. The boy knows that Mitchum is just a greedy, vicious man, but his mother doesn’t. One thing leads to another, and they are married.
It’s excruciating to watch Mitchum’s knife-wielding preacher tear the family apart—driving his wife to shrill insanity with religious inanities and taking advantage of his position as an adult to threaten the children.
One could say that the over-arching idea of the film is manipulation—manipulation of religion, manipulation of authority, manipulation of innocence—but the most potent themes pushed in the film have to do with influencing children.
The film’s most compelling scenes involve the silent rage that drives Mitchum’s character, his threats with his switchblade, but the film becomes more than just a character study when it dissects the treatment/mistreatment of children. The most prominent theme is that it is not only his parents but the world around him that raises a child. The children in this film are abused, both mentally and physically, in ways I did not anticipate. Over the course of The Night of the Hunter, I learned things about the nature of being a child and being nearly powerless. While I wouldn’t call it a message movie, it is certainly a movie that presents valuable ideas to the audience.
At times The Night of the Hunter is difficult to watch, but the film’s subtext and Mitchum’s captivating performance solidify the film as incredibly re-watchable and ultimately enduring.