The Night of the Hunter: Exposition and Symbolism

Everything, MDA 1800 Storytelling for the Screen

There are so many things that Charles Laughton’s 1955 film ‘The Night of the Hunter’ does right, it makes it difficult to concentrate on only two aspects. However in this post, I shall be concentrating on 2 aspects of the film that I would argue are among the most important to it’s success; exposition, and symbolism.

Exposition:

Many films that have a lot of dialogue become bogged down in verbal exposition, committing one of film’s most prevalent fallacies; telling and not showing. Instead of visually communicating to the audience, many filmmakers chose to have a running commentary of explanatory dialogue, telling the viewer exactly what is happening for the majority of the film.

Exposition through dialogue isn’t a bad thing, when done right. Some films succeed in having the perfect balance of both verbal, and visual exposition. ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is one of those films. A good example of this is the introduction of the mother character. The mother is lightly and ambiguously introduced earlier in the film with one shot, but this is the first time she is properly introduced as a character (unfortunately I could not find a video clip, so I am using screenshots):

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The two children (John and Pearl) are looking at a watch in the window, when an old woman comes out, asking where their mother is. John explains that she is working at a shop called ‘Spoons’.

 

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The children then walk down the road, arriving at ‘Spoons’. In this shot we can see the shop sign, and a woman standing in the window. John previously explained to the old woman that his mother was working in ‘Spoons’, and the audience now sees a woman standing in the window of ‘Spoons’, this is enough information for the audience to assume that the woman in the window is John and Pearl’s mother. The film then cuts to a tighter shot of the woman looking out of the window, and an eye-line match cut of the children, assuring the audience that this is the mother character.

This is a good example of how juxtaposing exposition through both dialogue, and visual storytelling can introduce a character to the audience, and progress the narrative of the film. The film is full of efficient storytelling similar to this, and the use of visual exposition makes this a story that is unique to the medium of film.

Symbolism:

Symbolism and representation can be a very powerful tools in film, and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is full of it. The film utilises symbolism and representation throughout it’s entire duration as both a narrative technique, and to enhance the film’s themes and ideas. Here are some examples:

 

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Here we see an image of the film’s antagonist ‘Harry Powell’. The symbolism in this shot enhances the sinister nature of the character. In order to explain this image properly, I shall give a bit of back story about the character, and what the audience know about him at this point in the film. At this point, it has been communicated to the audience that ‘Harry Powell’ is a thieving, misogynistic serial killer who uses a twisted form of religion (Christianity) to justify his actions. He even calls himself a priest. This shot takes place shortly after Harry meets the husband of a soon-to-be widow (her husband is on death row). He discovers that the woman has a large amount of money in her possession. This is fortunate to Harry, as he shall be released from jail in the next few days. In this shot, Harry is thanking God for this discovery.

The symbolism is quite subtle, but effective. Harry is speaking to God, his hands are together as if he is praying, and there is a knife held in-between his hands. This isn’t just any knife, this is the knife Harry uses to kill his victims. This is a very strong comment on Harry’s ideology, his hands being a symbol of God, and the knife being a simple of murder. It shows how this character manipulates religion to the point that an obvious immoral action (sin) is seen as a moral action by him. It’s not only a comment on his character, but a comment on religion as a whole, and how it’s teachings can be twisted and interoperated in such a way that evil actions are believed to be justified.

 

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Another piece of symbolised prevalent throughout the film is Pearl’s doll. This symbolism is more obvious, and is a form of narrative exposition, rather than character exposition.  Anyone who has seen the film will know that the money is hidden in the doll, the same doll that is almost always in the same shots as the children, often between the both of them. This has a very literal meaning; it shows how the money that Harry is looking for is right underneath his nose, adding a sense of dramatic irony to the film, and it also shows how the only thing standing between Harry and the money is the children. It could be argued that this is a comment on morality; the fact that Harry never gets his hands on the doll, belonging to the children, represents how good/innocence will always prevail over evil/corruption (The children representing good, and Harry representing Evil).

Exposition and symbolism are just 2 of the many things that make ‘The Night of the Hunter’ a truly great film.