Friday, August 14, 2015

Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter


Today, I'm looking at the character of Rachel Cooper played by the great actress Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter (1955). In this vintage poster, Gish is holding the shotgun with Gloria Castilo holding the candle and Robert Mitchum in the background.

This article is part of the Anti-Damsel blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In.

Note: there are spoilers ahead.

In Charles Laughton's masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955), ex-con "preacher" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) mesmerizes audiences with "the story of right hand/left hand" (clip below). He uses the tattoos on his hands for a melodramatic recreation of the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel that never fails to mesmerize his audience with a few notable exceptions (I'll get to that later).



Powell's story is a metaphor for the battle between good and evil that plays out throughout The Night of the Hunter. Good is represented by the kind-hearted widow Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) and evil is embodied by the menacing Powell. The pair fight for the souls of two innocent children in a story of greed, religious fervor, and murder set in 1930's West Virginia.

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Lillian Gish gets a birthday kiss from director Charles Laughton (left) and producer Paul Gregory on the set of The Night of the Hunter (1955).
 The Night of the Hunter also focuses on Powell's relationships with the women in the movie. They are either his willing dupes like ice cream shop owner Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), his helpless victims like Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) or his nemeses like Rachel Cooper, who qualifies for the anti-damsel tag because she has an unwavering moral compass and she knows how to use a shotgun.

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Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum in a screen capture from The Night of the Hunter (1955).
The Night of the Hunter follows John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Their father (Peter Graves) kills two people in a bank robbery, but he hides $10,000 in stolen cash in Pearl's rag doll before being hauled away to the state penitentiary where he is eventually hanged. Only the children and their father know where the money is, until he accidentally lets a small bit of information slip out to Powell, who is his cellmate (the preacher got locked up for stealing a car). Once he is paroled, Powell makes a beeline to John and Pearl. He is determined to get his hands on the money, even if it means marrying the children's emotionally fragile mother.

Charles Laughton directing Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955).
The first half of The Night of the Hunter pivots around Powell, who is brilliantly played by Mitchum with equal parts smarmy charm and terrifying menace. Mitchum, who was always one of old Hollywood's most seductive leading men, portrays Powell as a cunning con man who uses his good looks, lovely baritone voice, and especially his veneer of religious piety to captivate women. One of the most brilliant aspects of Laughton and James Agee's screenplay (based on the novel by David Grubb) is how almost every character grovels at Powell's feet because he portrays himself as "a man of God." His ability to quote chapter and verse instantly gets him a fan club in the Harper's small town, and soon he is holding revival meetings where he whips up the faithful into a religious frenzy.

Powell's most conspicuous conquest is John and Pearl's mother. She falls completely under the spell of the mesmerizing preacher, and when they marry she becomes his helpless victim. Powell constantly lies to her (he tells her the $10,000 is at the bottom of the Ohio River), breaks her spirit (he mocks her for wanting normal marital relations), and, most insidiously, he causes her to distrust her own children.  When Powell murders her after she is no longer of any use to him, it's almost an afterthought: he has already stripped her of all dignity and self respect.


The second half of the film focuses on Cooper, or Miz Rachel, as the children call her, and  she is the polar opposite of  Powell in every respect. Miz Rachel certainly knows her Bible and her hymns (Gish and Mitchum actually have a nice duet to "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"), but Miz Rachel's religion isn't a tool that she uses to manipulate others. Instead,  she uses it to help others, especially children like John and Pearl who are caught up in the hard times of The Great Depression. 


Gish always had an aura of saintliness in her movies, especially in her collaborations with D.W. Griffith. In The Night of the Hunter, Laughton both upholds that image and cleverly subverts it. Miz Rachel is certainly a gentle, understanding woman to her young charges, but she has an inner core of steel that even Mitchum cannot break. At first, he tries charm, but Miz Rachel sees right through his crocodile tears and quickly gets out the shotgun (if you compare the clip below to the clip at the top of the article, you'll see how Powell gets a very different reception to his "right hand/left hand" story). 



When Powell's charm offensive doesn't work, he tries physically menacing Miz Rachel, which sets up an extremely tense night scene where he stalks outside the farmhouse. Even faced with Mitchum's switchblade and his superior physical prowess, Miz Rachel doesn't bend. In the end, she defeats Powell because she has a different kind of strength. While Powell's power over others is based on his large size and his ability to manipulate and deceive, Miz Rachel has a moral strength that comes from spiritual qualities like love and truth , although her skill with a shotgun certainly doesn't hurt her noble cause.


The Night of the Hunter is available on DVD and video on demand. 


12 comments :

  1. Great flick. Great actress, great focus for the blogathon.

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  2. This is one I've wanted to watch for a long time but haven't because it look so intense, and I'm always thinking, yeah, not sure I'm up for that tonight. Definitely will give it a go now.

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    1. It is intense, but there's also a lot of humor, especially from Mitchum and Evelyn Varden who plays the gossipy neighbor.

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    2. It is intense, but there's also a lot of humor, especially from Mitchum and Evelyn Varden who plays the gossipy neighbor.

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  3. Love Gish in this film: sweet, saintly, and badass!

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  4. Yes, you're right about Laughton capitalizing on Gish's saintliness but also subverting it. She is terrific in this film and absolutely deserves to be called an Anti Damsel.

    Really enjoyed your post!

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  5. Such a fantastic film, and her role in it isn't discussed enough.

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  6. Good choice for the blogathon, Amanda. I love Lillian Gish anyway, so it is no stretch to love Miz Rachel as well. I have known a couple of gentle, faithful ladies like her with whom you would not want to mess.

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  7. Thanks for joining us! I'm so glad you chose Gish's character in this film. As you point out, there is an intriguing contrast between Mitchum's predatory use of religion and her fierce determination to use it to help others. Truly an anti-damsel for the ages.

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    1. Thanks for hosting. It was a great blogathon

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  8. FINALLY someone talks about how awesome a character Rachel Cooper is and how it was one of Gish's best roles that tailor made for her. Not to mention the character was way ahead of its time, she was as independent a woman as you can get.

    But most of all it's how she responds to Ruby's promiscuity, she doesn't slut shame her, instead she embraces Ruby and recognizes her promiscuity as a cry for help and understands that she was only looking for love--THAT was revolutionary, especially considering this was made in the sexist 1950s in the pinnacle of victim blaming and slut shaming. And then she says, "It's alright, we all need love, I lost the love of my son, I found it with you all."

    It was revolutionary to see a woman in 1950s cinema who was not only independent and confident with who she was and her old age, but also who was without a husband and happily fufilled with a rich life. She was not presented as a tragedy nor as a joke but as a savior and hero.

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  9. Amanda this was a fantastic addition to the blogathon! Lillian Gish does have a quality that exudes gentility and wisdom. She was perfect as Rachel Cooper. Harry Powell is such an imposing force, and Gish's performance seems to beat back his darkness. I'm so glad you joined us and chose Lillian for our Anti Damsel Blogathon... Cheers Joey from The Last Drive In

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