The Night of the Hunter (1955)

 Good grandmother , bad Grandmother?

Both  the U3A and non U3A audience were very enthusiastic about this classic and the comments were mainly on its effectiveness in making us care about the children and experience the action as seen through their eyes.

A lot has been written about The Night of the Hunter.  It has been described as a film noir, a thriller, a fable. Pauline Kael called it ‘the most frightening movie ever made’ and Laughton said it was a “nightmarish sort of  Mother Goose tale”. People who have seen the film decades ago will recount how certain images have remained in their consciousness for years. For me it is Lilian Gish on the porch, holding the rifle in the night vigil in defence of the children that was etched in my brain.

The tension between good and evil, light and dark, innocence and knowledge, madness and sanity,  youth and age is expressed in the film in the images, the music, the songs. My interest here is to shed some light on the old women who have a role in John Harper’s story.

There is no denying that the attitude of Grubb (the author of the novel the film is based on) towards women informs the film. Simon Callow, in his BFI book, notes that  Grubb  formed a belief in the overpowering importance of women and quotes him as saying: “Women held this country together during the pioneer days, and I think they held it together during the depression”. Before considering the two contrasting older women, Icey and Rachel Cooper, I would like to focus on two vignettes of two other old women. They are on-screen for less than a minute between them but are interesting. Mizz Cunningham is the owner of the pawn shop. She is a big woman and shown in full size and middle shot. Her dress is ample and fancy. Dangling earrings, multiple necklaces and bracelets, she could well feature in the Advanced Style website (see below for link).  With her grey dishevelled hair and her hands on her waist she looks and talks to John and Pearl in a menacing accusing way.

In contrast, the anonymous farm woman standing in the shadow of her doorway giving potatoes to the abandoned children is seen in profile. Her face is angular and shows tiredness.  Her tone is weary and expresses powerlessness in her words: “Hungry I suppose… such times when young ones run the roads… go away go away”.    These brief shots are very reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s photos of the Depression.

In parallel to these very minor characters Icey and Rachel are major players in the plot. I will come back to Rachel but first look at Icey who is present in numerous scenes. Although an  interfering older woman stereotype the character has some depth. Physically Icey is a big woman, with a tidy bun on top of her head. In a plain dress and apron she appears more often than not preparing food and in particular ice cream and fudge.  She proffers homilies about bringing up children, about sexual desire in women in general. She is judgmental of  John’s mother Willa, she bullies her husband and is dismissive of the children’s needs. She is enthralled and seduced by the preacher, and ignores her husband’s justified doubts time and again. She pushes vulnerable Willa into marrying the preacher. She looks at him adoringly. Her girlish, possibly flirty attitude introduces a funny touch to the sombre story.  But she changes from a good-natured older woman, albeit gullible, to a furious dishevelled harpy in a grey coat.  She rouses the people in the courtroom, attract the attention of the mob to Rachel and the children who are recovering in a tea room, and finally with an axe in her hand leads the lynch mob against the preacher.

In contrast to Icey, we have Rachel,  she is the personification  of the Good against Evil but she also fulfils the role of grandmother. The title sequences feature her in mid close up against a starry sky.  A plait is wound around her head and she has a shawl on her shoulders. She is telling a bible story to 5 children. But it is in the last 20 minutes of the film that Lilian Gish gives a performance remarkable in its sense of determination and strength coupled with sensitivity and love. The dialogue and the cinematography enhance this wonderful characterisation of Rachel Cooper and her relationship with the children, in particular to John. It is impossible here not to mention the visual effects of some the scenes.

At her first encounter with John and Pearl she threatens them with a switch and baths them and even spanks John when he tries to escape the soap. A flock of geese is present in this shot. We then see her in the town at the head of the five children in a line just like a bird and chicks on the water. (I imagine that this is the director’s reference to his nightmarish Mother Goose story). Contrary to Icey’s view on women’s sexuality being non-existent, Rachel appreciates the need for love that leads women to be fools and to forget about the consequences of having children. She is there to help.  She states:  “I am a strong tree with branches for many birds. I  am good for something in this old world and I know it too”. She wins the love of the children by being strict but also loving.  She understands teenager Ruby’s sexual explorations: “we all need love” and vows :”  you are going to grow up to a strong woman and will I see to it that you do”. With John who is initially diffident, she is very sensitive. The image of John tentatively touching her hand as she sits darning is infinitely touching.

The confrontation with the preacher is stunning. She refuses to be seduced by his talk and does not believe his story interrupting him in his tale of Hate and Love that so enthralled Icey. She believes in John and when the preacher pursues him with a knife she appears with a shot-gun and  takes aim at the preacher frightening him away. That night she sits in a vigil on a rocking chair bolt upright holding the rifle. The composition of this shot is highly dramatic.  The lighting somehow shows her dark profile in the dark of the house holding the gun. Subtle lighting picks up her lap and the walls behind her. The camera pans through the window to the preacher who is sitting on a tree stump with only his face in light and the children are seen sleeping upstairs.  When the preacher starts singing “Leaning Leaning”    Rachel start singing also. These scenes are extremely powerful in their visual and sound impact.  When the preacher disappears  Rachel calls the children in the kitchen and still holding the gun walks back and forth in front of them hiding her anxiety and fear. To distract them she tells them King Herod’s story  and instructing them covertly that they should run away in case of danger. Throughout these scenes her concerns are for the children. A cut away shot of an owl attacking a rabbit, expresses her sympathy for the hard lives of children. She also expresses her respect for them : “they abide”.

When John breaks down following the arrest of the preacher she is there to carry him inside the house and she is there with the other children at the court.

The final Christmas scenes are introduced by Rachel running out  in the snow with a shawl around her shoulder to look at the post box. She rushes back to the warmth of  her kitchen muttering about being glad that they – presumably her son and wife?-   have not sent her anything and anyway when they do it is only to show off how they have gone up in the world.    It is a warm family atmosphere then that prevails: cooking over the stove, and the giving and receiving presents.

This last touch exemplifies how in a film that is highly stylised and like a fable, the old women are sketched in such realistic terms.  Rachel  Cooper fulfills a realistic grandmother role.  I feel I have not done justice to the film’s team: the director, writer, scriptwriter, cinematographer  but I have tried to point out how important the old women are in this story.

A few notes:

– Advanced Style :

– I have not studied many reviews of this film but relied mainly on Simon Callow BFI publication. Both Derek Malcolm and Simon Callow refer to Mary Cooper as a spinster. The Lilian Gish character has in fact a son who lives in the city. He is mentioned three times in the dialogue.  Michael Sragow describes Mary Cooper as ‘Lillian Gish’s gnarly matriarch’.  She is described as a fairy godmother, as a good witch, a grey haired old woman. I fear these misperceptions may express ageist preconceptions .


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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3 Responses to The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  1. Tina Turner Sage says:

    Thank you for this Rina, I’ve never seen this film but will look out for it and watch it with your comments in mind.

  2. Elizabeth O'Dell says:

    What a beautiful, thoughtful reflection on the older women in this extraordinary (and scary!) film.
    I agree with your comments on the differences between Icey (I could hardly bear to watch, let alone listen, to her) and Rachel (who made me want to stand up and cheer). It is like an emotional
    roller coaster to watch this film (as I did) for the first time. Yes, it was frightening and I feared for
    the children until the preacher was finally taken into custody. I would like to see it again, and
    discuss it again, as it is clearly a film with which the first impressions can only deepen with repeated viewing.
    As for the comments of the male reviewers, do they really merit any notice at all? It is incredible
    that they can make such judgments, which seems to indicate that they are without capacity for
    empathy in a highly emotional film about a terrible time in American. history. I wonder how they
    see what is happening to our society in the UK now.

  3. Pingback: The Night of the Hunter (1955) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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