Director: Charles Laughton, 1955. (NR)
"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matt. 7:15-20)Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) reads these words from Scripture (in the KJV ) to a group of children as the opening credits roll. We don't know who this matronly woman is, though she looks like a Sunday School teacher. But she will appear again towards the end of the film. Yet, this warning frames the film, giving us a portent of things to come.
The hunter is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a tall and handsome "preacher" whose knuckles are tattooed with LOVE on one hand and HATE on the other. This dichotomy perfectly describes this psychopathic Bluebeard, who professes a gospel of love but really brings a gospel of hate. He seeks lonely wealthy widows so he can marry and then kill them for their money, somehow believing he is doing God's will.
Robert Mitchum is at the top of his acting game here as the creepy killer. Charles Laughton, the great actor from the 30s-50s directed but had such a bad experience that this was his second and last attempt at directing. Yet, despite the poor critical and commercial reception at its release, this has aged well and is a spellbinding chiller that is suspenseful without resorting to violence and gore.
Early in the film Harry is in prison sharing a cell with killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves, from the TV series "Mission Impossible"). It is the Great Depression, and Ben stole $10,000 to feed his kids. That money is hidden and only his two young children John and Pearl know where it is. Even his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) has no idea. She thinks it is gone, thrown into the river. When Ben is hanged, Willa becomes the next widow on Harry's list.
When Harry comes to the small town where Willa lives, it is his sweet-talking and hymn-singing persona that wins him to the locals and to Willa, though John sees through his disguise. Not all who wear the collar are men of the cloth. Mrs Cooper's warnings are apropos. There are wolves in sheep's clothing out there waiting to deceive even the elect (Matt. 24:24). Such "preachers" are dangerous. We can know them by their fruit. They may sound good, even perfect, but such goodness must be put to the test. Is the fruit good? In Harry's case, all his fruit was bad, a string of dead bodies lying in his past.
After he has married Willa, Harry needs to get the secret of the hiding place from the children. But John's discernment keeps both his and Pearls' lips sealed. Behind closed doors Harry drops his mask. He is not the blessed peace-loving man of God others see him as. One scene is as chilling as the shower scene in Psycho. With the two kids hiding in the cellar, Harry croons, "I can hear you whisperin' children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience children. I'm coming to find you." Then he calls out in a normal voice, "Chill. . . dren!" That long-drawn out word sends shivers down my spine. It evokes all the evil of Lucifer.
Harry is a twisted man. On his wedding night he tells Willa, his new bride, "Marriage to me represents the blending of two spirits in the sight of Heaven." Then focusing on the physical, her body, he tells her, "That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men!" To him, sex for pleasure is sinful, even in the context of the marriage bed. Ironically, in an early conversation with God, he recounts, "There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair" yet later is caught in the audience of an exotic-dancing club watching a dancer in lacy clothing.
Harry's theology of marriage is errant. God did not bring man and woman together just for procreation. Procreation and reproduction is one aspect of marriage (Gen. 1:28). But companionship and partnership is another (Gen. 2:18). Solomon paints a very clear picture of the beauty and joy of sex within the boundaries of wedlock in his wonderful Song of Solomon. Paul, addressing the topic of sex within marriage, tells the church at Corinth, "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5). The writer of Hebrews also points out that Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure" (Heb. 13:4).
Indeed, Harry's whole belief system is a mess of self-deception. When asked what religion he preaches, he says, "The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us." He claims to have negotiated a form of theology with God. But that is not for man to do. God has given us his Word and his gospel. We cannot create our own religion or theology and believe we have salvation, although many try. Harry reminds us a little of Jim Jones, who created his own cult following and them led them to drink the Kool-Aid to their own demise. Jones had his own theology, his own religion. His followers were "saved" in this man-made way. Harry's own religion led a number of women to their deaths at his hands. The end destination of all cults is man-made salvation, which is death.
Luke wrote, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Jesus will not work out a new religion with any of us. We must choose to accept his gospel and his salvation. Anything else is false religion peddled by false preachers . . . just like Harry.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs