‘Night of the Hunter’: Rise and Fall of an American Con Man

In the 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell, a classic American con man posing as an itinerant preacher, settles in Moundsville, WV. He seduces, marries, and kills Willa, a bank robber’s widow. He then charms the entire town while hunting Willa’s escaped children and $10,000 their father had hid with them.

Dave Bernabo and I weren’t the first to shoot a movie in Moundsville. With its classic gothic penitentiary, wide Ohio river views, and cozy streets, the West Virginia town has hosted bundles of films and TV shows, including Fools Parade, Out of the Furnace, Mindhunter, and Castle Rock.

But no Moundsville movie is as celebrated as Night of the Hunter, a masterpiece of 1950s noir. Directed by English actor Charles Laughton, it stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Importantly, it’s based on a novel by Davis Grubb (1919-1980), Moundsville’s most celebrated writer, who drew on the true story of Harry Powers, a serial killer who lured women through lonely hearts ads. There was so much public interest in the case that Powers was tried in the same theatre where we premiered Moundsville in 2018, before he was hanged in the Moundsville prison.

Parts of the movie, mostly background elements, were filmed in Moundsville. An August 27, 1954 item in the Echo reported that “actual shooting of background scenes for the forthcoming movie, ‘Night of the Hunter’ was scheduled to get under way in the local area this afternoon.”

It’s a simple story, which you can listen to while watching clips from the film in this thrilling reading by Laughton, which I recommend. After killing the widow Willa (Winters), Powell (Mitchum) chases the children up, down and around the Ohio River, often on horseback. The film is drenched in gothic symbol, and clanging with the sounds of good clashing against evil. The photography is shadowy, and the script heavy with Bible quotes and stories, and the soundtrack hums with haunting hymns.

The movie starts with a Sunday school lecture: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits”.

It’s a lesson the town takes too long to learn. Preacher Powell is an evil, sadistic, manipulative, misogynistic, cunning, charismatic, charming con man, and people love him and his rhapsodic street sermons, especially the one where he explains the “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and “LOVE” on the fingers of his right. Life, he explains as he rolls his clenched fists in circles, is a battle of good against evil.

Like an emperor, the preacher struts sidewalks and markets, drawing adoration and praise. Nobody sees that he’s a sociopathic liar. It’s only Willa’s son John, and Rachel Cooper (Gish), a kind old lady who takes in him and his sister Pearl, who see that Harry is, in fact, a false prophet. “It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel, speaking for all the vulnerable. She protects the children from Harry.

In the end, Rachel shoots Harry, chases him into her barn, and calls the state troopers. Once Harry is caught and shamed, the town flips and, of course, forms a mob to chase him to prison.

The book was Davis Grubb’s first novel, and it was a best-seller. “As we read this brilliant novel we live in a world where all human decency is lost through the character of the Preacher,” wrote Herbert West in the New York Times. “But human nature is redeemed by old Rachel Cooper… One comes to the satisfying end of the story with a profound sense of relief.”

Both the film and novel close with Rachel reflecting on resilience:

Lord save little children! For each of them has his Preacher to hound him down the dark river of fear and tonguelessness and never-a-door. Each one is mute and alone because there is no word for a child’s fear and no ear to heed it if there were a word and no one to understand it if it heard. Lord save little children! They abide and and they endure.

Film directors are gaga for Night of the Hunter. The Coen Brothers have drawn on its religious language and symbolism for many of their own scripts.

America abides.

John W. Miller

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