Thursday, October 06, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #26 - Reverend Harry Powell

I never knew before reading up on The Night of the Hunter today that the book's author Davis Grub was inspired by Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer who was hanged in 1932 for the murders of two women and three children. Powers was suspected of killing up to fifty other women; of his murders, he is reported to have said, "It beat any cat house I was ever in." Powers' fictional counterpart, the Reverend Harry Powell, is just as cold-blooded. A predator who uses religion to conceal his evil nature, Powell marries, then kills the widow of a recently executed robber (Shelly Winters) in order to get closer to the woman's two kids, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), believing they know where their dad hid his loot. In the dreamlike South of Charles Laughton's film (the only one he ever directed), Powell is a snake in the grass, a devil worthy of Milton, his charm and eloquence turning on a dime into terrifying cruelty.

Mitchum is the perfect choice for Harry Powell; as the story goes, Laughton explained the character to Mitchum as "a diabolical shit," and Mitchum responded "Present!" As with his Max Cady in the original Cape Fear, Mitchum is suave, strong and able to insinuate through the force of his presence that he is capable of terrible things. He's the perfect wolf in sheep's clothing, as he's described by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an elderly women who runs a home for orphaned and abandoned children and provides sanctuary for John and Pearl. Cooper is the light to Powell's darkness in a confrontation of Biblical proportions, and it's interesting that once Powell is drawn into the light of Cooper's home, he seems less frightening, almost ridiculous. That said, I've never quite bought the cozy Christmastime denouement and Gish's monologue about the strength of the innocents. It's hard to believe that Powell is truly vanquished, that the wolf in sheep's clothing isn't merely waiting for a new disguise.

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