“God’s book is full of killin’s”
Listen, I want to talk to you about this film with me making some assumptions. That you’re here because of knuckle tattoos, that you’ve maybe seen it, or that you don’t care about a whole movie review but do care about the knuckle tattoos being the central jumping off point for your viewing it ’cause they should be – ’cause they are.
“On one level the plot is simplicity itself: Dad has done a stick-up and stashed the money in a doll. This Mammonish idol, a Venus of Willendorf with its tummy stuffed with cash, becomes the desired
treasure in the struggle between evil and innocence. The robber’s two children – a girl and an older boy – have been sworn not to tell the doll’s secret to anybody, especially not to their mother, the fleshly and therefore wilful Willa. Wolfish fellow -prisoner Harry knows about the money, but not where it’s hidden; so after Dad is hanged he puts on his sheep’s clothing and goes off to romance the widow, oozing sexual power from every pore but especially from his lower eyelids. Willa falls for it and marries him, but Harry’s not interested in her body. He cuts her throat and sinks her in the river, then claims she’s run off, as demonish women do.”
…..then he begins hunting the kids, and now watch it for yourself.
Davis Grubb‘s book Night of the Hunter is the inspiration for the 1955 film Directed by Charles Laughton. It’s a reworking of a story about a killer named Harry Powers who pretended to be a wealthy West Virginia (where Grubb was from) businessman in order to fleece women, killing two of them and three children before he was apprehended and hanged.
The film’s also, for all intents and purposes, the genesis of the knuckle tattoo. They may have existed prior to this film, but Night of the Hunter has had 53 years of impressing viewers with the power of this particular body mod as a tool for expression. The reason is the way the film showcases the tattoos. They’re on the hands of Reverend Harry Powell, a sociopathic serial killer masquerading as clegy. Portrayed by perrennial wreathed-in-weed-smoke badass Robert Mitchum (who also played Max Cady in Cape Fear 7 years later), Reverend Powell is willing to slice open a 4 year old to get what he wants, with all the psycho-sexual trimmings to go with it. He’s a reptile, and he feeds on souls. His portrayal is hard, maybe harder than anything prior to it on film. This is a bad son of a bitch, and he seems real.
Simon Callow recalls this short anecdote:
“Mitchum,” Laughton had said to him when offering him the part, “the Preacher is a diabolical shit.”
“Present!” said Mitchum.
There’s an assload of subtext to the tattoos as well. One can picture a hard left hook to the jaw with the “HATE” tattoo (most likely a sucker punch) while a “LOVE” tatooed right hand is placed inappropriately on an unwelcoming woman’s body, with a tension suggesting impending violence. Typical fucked-up county lockup behavior, done with a needle with a teeny ball/spool of thread near the tip to collect and dispense ink made from burnt contraband. Reverend Powell – like a good sociopath – doesn’t waste the tattoos by being a released prisoner washing dishes or doing oil changes with marked hands that shout “loser” to members of polite 1950′s society. Instead they are currency that shows his dedication to God’s Mission, the saving of souls – presumably by helping them get to heaven a little faster – along with their children’s souls – while taking custodial care of their funds and departing in a stolen vehicle.
He entreats the Rubes with his bullshit by explaining the tattoos represent values in the material world and the struggle between those values – naturally with good triumphing over evil – sucker – seen in this clip:
So thanks for your attention, the ghost of Mitchum thanks you too, but let me add as the undisputed King of Calypso, he was friendly and kind as the day in long, jolly mon, as evidenced by his rendition of this song: