Saturday, May 25, 2013

Don’t Touch my Knife: A feminist reading of Charles Laughton’s "The Night of the Hunter"

(Note: I posted this on another blog a few years ago; if you need proof I wrote it or bibliographical notes to cite this for academic purposes, please contact and I will be happy to provide them for you. - Iskander)

          In Charles Laughton’s 1955 Southern Gothic-Noir-Terror masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, gender roles are very clearly defined: grown men, whether they are viewed as protectors or predators of women, are inherently violent or otherwise useless, and grown women are viewed as inherently foolish, or wise only when they keep to their traditional role as nurturers.  This is discernible from the events of the first two scenes,  the picnic scene and the scenes toward the film’s end. Though the film’s depiction of gender roles is very traditional, its self-conscious warnings about misogynistic men  make it unique among films of its era.  The film’s principal personification of a “good woman” is Rachel Cooper and its principal personification of misogyny in men is “Preacher” Harry Powell, both of whom are introduced in the film’s opening scene.
            As Rachel Cooper reads to her orphans from the Bible, the first images of Harry Powell appear, and we hear Rachel reading Matthew 7:15 : 
“And beware false prophets who come sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves…”  
       Powell is in the middle of praying for money as he drives along. Passing a cemetery, he notes, “…not that you mind the killings, Lord.  Your book is full of killings.  But there are things you do hate, Lord.  Lacey things.  Perfume smellin’ things.  Things with curly hair.”  Cut to an image of a burlesque show.  A melodramatic horn plays a bluesy, over-the-top, drunken-sounding, Dixieland jazz melody.  Powell sits in the audience, his eyes fixed to the stage (just like all the other men around him).  He looks away for a moment, only to sneer upward at “God” and then let his hand fall into his pocket.  Now, for the first time, the tattoo on his knuckles is revealed: “H-A-T-E”.  His curled fist goes into his pocket, and a second before he is arrested, the blade of his switchblade juts up through his suit. Really, everything we as the audience need to know about Harry Powell has been shown to us at this point:  the Freudian subtext inherent in watching a switchblade tear through the man’s pants when he sees a stripper is fairly transparent, and that he is a complete sociopath is revealed in his method of survival: using his good looks and sonorous, charismatic tenor voice to marry rich widows, kill them, and make off with their fortunes.
            When we’re introduced to Ben Harper, however, a much different picture is painted: he has robbed a bank, and as he hides the money (from the audience, at this point, too, as Laughton’s camera at first stays in a close-up of Ben’s face), Ben pulls his son, John, aside to tell him to guard his little sister, Pearl, with his life and to keep the money’s location a secret, even from John’s own mother, for, “[John’s] got common sense.  She ain’t.”  So the film’s attitude that, as Rachel Cooper later puts it, “women is fools” is already revealed, since one of the, “good men” already trusts that his pre-teen son has more common sense than an adult woman.  Later, as Powell and Harper sit in a prison cell together, Ben notes that he robbed the bank because he wanted to help his wife and children and make sure they did not starve, and then asks Harry, “What religion you profess, Preacher?” to which Harry replies, “The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.”  And, indeed, while praying, knife in hand, his “L-O-V-E” knuckles now visible to the camera, he makes it apparent (even at the very moment Ben Harper is hanging)  that the core of his soul is dedicated to love money and hatred of women.   Often, the two emotions are one in same, as symbolized by the fact that two opposing forces are now interlocked in prayer.  The noble, good man who stood up for his wife and family has been hung for doing so, and the evil man is alive and well.
            The hangman who kills Ben Harper is next seen going to Harper’s wife, Willa.  She only takes up a small portion of the background of the frame, her face obscured by shadow, while he is given a larger portion of the foreground.  She expresses her grief about being left, “another widow” (read: easily victimized) while he himself is, as always, unsettled by the hanging.  Here, I should think we ought to take genuine stock of the adult male characters in the film:
1.     Ben Harper, bank robber (number of people he has killed: two),
2.     Harry Powell, fake preacher (number of people he has killed by the film’s end: 27, at least),
3.     The hangman,
4.     The judge (who sentenced Ben to hang),
5.     Uncle Bertie, the town drunkard and,
6.     Walt Spoon, spineless old goof-ball
Not  exactly what you’d call , “a great bunch of guys”. They all either do as, “real men” do—which, in this film, usually involves killing someone—or, in the case of the last two, are constantly watched over by their wives (or, at least Bertie would imagine  he is being watched over) because they are incompetent and, therefore, are assigned the role of comic relief within the structure of the plot. (This is especially true of Walt Spoon).
            “I’ve been married to my Walt for [30 years], and I swear, in all that time, I just lie there, think about my canning.”  Walt looks embraced at his wife’s public attack on his cocksmenship, but does not dare voice his opinion; “That’s somethin’ for a man.  The good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that,  Not really want it.”  Walt’s wife is frigid.  So,  Icey Spoon’s opinions about sex are directed at Willa Harper, who has spent the entirety of the picnic scene worried about where the money was hidden and whether Harry Powell thinks she knows.  That Powell tells her it’s at the bottom of the river (thereby foreshadowing her death) only becomes significant when the money’s real hiding place is revealed: in Pearl’s doll.  Pearl’s doll is a symbol for Powell’s greed; an effigy of a young woman that is stuffed with money—an object, made to be a mere toy, but really only valuable for the money it holds.  Icey’s Spoon’s constant warnings to Willa to get married (because Willa cannot survive without a man) and her mistrust of a woman she has known for years in favor of blind faith in the lies Powell tells after Willa disappears only help to service Powell’s said greed.
            Here, I should also like to note a distinct pattern that has emerged: only the women are at all concerned with the nature of their own sexuality.  The only male characters that are on screen long enough to respond in situations where sex is mentioned are John, who is too young to consciously understand the implications of what is being said, Walt Spoon, who has been emasculated by his wife, and Harry Powell.  Powell, for instance, later accuses Willa of having turned him out of their bed on their wedding night, when in fact it was he who turned herout, giving a moral diatribe about marriage being, “…a blending of two spirits in the sight of the Lord.”  Harry is prone to using women’s lust against them.  As minor characters, Ruby’s little boyfriends toward the end of the film do the same to her. Again, it is the predatory nature of men and the foolish nature of women that is emphasized.  The only woman in the film who can be described as both strong and intelligent is Rachel Cooper, who describes herself as, “a strong tree with branches for many…” and the children at her orphanage as, “…my burden.  And I’m proud of it.”  Here, Rachel is fulfilling her role as nurturer, albeit managing to do it without any significant, adult male figure to help her.  
        And, indeed, as Harry stalked outside Rachel’s window, and the two harmonized in singing, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, we are reminded of the opposite poles of Harry Powell’s hands coming together in his cynical prayer at the beginning of the film.  Those two opposite poles are what teaches John wisdom: for, even though it was Eve who lured Adam to his Fall with the Fruit of Knowledge,  by the film’s end, it is now John who hands Rachel Cooper an apple as her Christmas gift.  And Rachel responds, “…that’s the best gift a body can have.”  Not sex. Wisdom.  The Fall of [wo]man at the hands of men.
          It is clear that Laughton agrees that women should away from sex because it gives men a chance to victimize them, but, apparently, women can make it on their own in the world…as long as they don’t entirely abandon their traditional roles as wives and mothers.  Like many other noir crime films, The Night of the Hunter is very cynical in its attitude toward humanity.  Men are depicted as being largely predatory, violent even  when they are not, or otherwise worthless.  Women are depicted as foolish and easily victimized unless they stay within well defined, traditional female roles.  The film begins making its point right from the first few scenes, and reiterates the point during both the picnic scene and, later, toward the end of the film.  I find it very saddening that it was also Laughton’s only work as a director.  To be sure, his mastery of photographic composition and low key lighting techniques and use of expressionistic sets, music and symbolism create an artfully rendered cinematic world that is at once enigmatic, childlike, ethereal, ominous, beautiful, atmospheric, menacing and sublime.  This capacity remains unrivaled in it to this day.

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