The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powers

Harry Powers (Cornelius O. Pierson)

On the 20th September 1931 Harry Powers was hurriedly taken by police to Moundsville State Penitentiary for his own safety. A large and angry crowd had gathered outside the small County Jail demanding Powers be handed over to them, so they could dispense mob justice by lynching him in the streets. The local Fire Department set their water hoses upon the crowd in an attempt to disperse them, but it would take the engagement of tear gas before the authorities could gain control of the situation.  

Moundsville State Penitentiary, West Virginia was an imposing gothic style building that would not go a miss in a Stephen King novel.  On March 18, 1932, Harry Powers was taken to its scaffolds. Upon his arrival he was offered the opportunity to make a last statement, but declined. A cap was placed over his head and at 9:00 am the guard pushed the button. Powers dropped through the trap door and 11 minutes later he was pronounced dead.


Cornelius O. Pierson

Operating under the alias Cornelius O. Pierson, Harry Powers wrote a succession of letters to Asta Eicher who was a recently widowed mother of 3 children. After a brief romance Powers took Eicher on a trip leaving her 3 children with a friend, Elizabeth Abernathy. Shortly afterwards Abernathy received a letter advising her that Powers would be coming to pick the children up to join their mother. Powers then made contact with Dorothy Lemke, who lived in Masschuetts and was seeking love through a lonely hearts advert.  Asta Eicher, her 3 children and Dorothy Lemke all disappeared with no explanation.

Police investigating their disappearances became suspicious when the name Cornelius O. Pierson appeared as one of the last known contacts of Asta Eicher. The police quickly established there was no one registered under the name of Cornelius Pierson, but his description matched that of Harry Powers who was arrested and a search warrant was issued for his home.  Blood, clothing, hair and a burned bankbook where all found and following the excavation of freshly filled ditches the bodies of Asta Eicher, her children and Dorothy Lemke were uncovered. Postal records later indicated that Powers had opened up his own lonely hearts ad using his alias Cornelius O. Pierson. Replies to his advertisement were pouring in at a rate of 10 to 20 letters per day. Love letters were also discovered on the property addressed to several women, whom he intended to kill and steal their money.

Romance, musicals and mellow dramas

The 1950s are synonymous with films featuring the likes of James Dean, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The majority of these films tended to be musicals, clean cut American westerns, mellow dramas and comic romances. Whilst films presenting more challenging narratives were starting to emerge like Rebel Without a Cause these films were rare due to the emergence of TV. The big film studios did not want to potentially disturb or frighten away their family audience who also brought vast amounts of  popcorn, ice-cream and soda drinks during the cinema visits.

Strange Author 

The author Davis Grubb had a distinct characteristic of only being able to write whilst on a train. An extreme recluse, refusing to travel in cars and seldom spoke to anybody.  Using the case of Harry Powers, Grubb in 1953 wrote The Night of the Hunter.  In the book Grubb explores murder, social corruption, misogyny, domestic violence, the hypnotic force of religion, family breakdown, alienation, poverty and child cruelty. The book’s main character (Harry Powers), who after serving a sentence for stealing a car presents himself to the outside world as a prison chaplain. Using information he discovered in prison from his soon to be executed cellmate the “Reverend” Powell cons his executed cellmate’s widow into marrying him with the hope that her children will tell Powers where their father hid the $10,000 from his last bank robbery. After killing their mother Powell embarks on a hunt for the children.

NightofthehunterposterIn 1955, the book was made into a film. Remaining true to the narrative of the book the plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer Harry Powers, superbly played by Robert Mitchum. The director of the film was no other than the legendary actor Charles Laughton. The lead role of Powers was initially earmarked for Laurence Olivier, but the studios were not eager to associate the clean Olivier image with the film. When approached by Laughton to play Powers, Mitchum is reported to have replied, “If you are really going to make a movie about a wife murdering, child stalking manic of a preacher, doing his evil deeds in God’s name, them count me in.”  

The author of the book Davis Grubb was also an accomplished artist who drew sketches of the characters he would write about. Learning of this Charles Laughton kept in contact with Grubb and repeatedly asked him to send visualisations of facial expressions he had in mind when writing the book. Grubb obliged by sending over 100 pen and ink drawings during the making of the film. This process helped contribute towards the stark realism and bold expressionism throughout the film.

I first came across The Night of the Hunter in the mid 1970s one Saturday evening in my teenage years. Having seen the name Robert Mitchum listed in the TV schedule I decided to tune in and was expecting a run of the mill western. The opening sequence quickly dispelled that notion as Miss Cooper’s (the savour of orphans in the film) disembodied head narrates from a heavenly night sky, “Beware of false prophets…”  Robert Mitchum is then introduced singing hymns as he travels in search of his victim. Tortured by his hatred of women Mitchum’s character carries a switchblade pocket knife, which he considers his holy sword.

The murder of the Shelley Winters character is reminisce of a vintage black and white silent movie and shortly afterwards  the children hiding in the cellar of the family home whilst Mitchum sits outside calming singing to the children inside before he starts to terrorise them is particularly unnerving. As the children make their escape on a boat downriver Mitchum pursues them on horse bank.  Upon seeing the silhouette of the murderer on the ridge of the hill cast by the moonlight one of the children chillingly remarks, “Don’t he ever sleep?”  After the films first private screening with only  Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory (producer) present both sat in complete silence as the last of the film flickered through the reel. They had not expected the film to have been so odd. Gregory turned to Laughton (who was a fragile soul at the best of times) and said, “Charles they’re not going to know how to sell this picture and I think we are going to be in trouble.” He was right. The Night of the Hunter was not a commercial success upon release and Laughton fell into deep depression. Whilst he had several film projects lined up Laughton would never direct another film.

In many respects the film has not faired well with time. Its dialogue, script, acting and editing through today’s eyes may seem clumsy and even corny,  but the authentic innovation and atmospheric feel the film presents has influenced many film makers Spike Lee, The Cohen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have all tipped their hats to The Night of the Hunter as a major influence on their craft. Whilst dated this highly original and brilliant good-and-evil parable, with “good” represented by a couple of farm kids and a pious old lady, and “evil” literally in the hands of a posturing psychopath is rightly considered a classic.


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