One of the best and most underrated moments from Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter (1955), the scene that captures the murder of Willa (Shelly Winters) after a prolonged period of brainwashing by Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), is not only one of the most important and powerful moments in the film but one that sums up the more interesting end of thematic audio-visual questioning in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Laughton’s film stands out easily from the crowd for its D.W. Griffith homage, its visual splendour and its mixture of fantastical nightmares and fairytales with noir tonalities, but this scene in particular deserves further analysis.
To set the scene, Willa’s husband, Ben (Peter Graves), has been hung for murder and for the theft of $10,000 but, before he was captured, he managed to pass the money on to his two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who hide it in a doll. Preacher, upon learning of the convict’s family whilst sharing a cell with Ben, heads south in search of it once out of prison and embeds himself in the children’s community by wooing their widowed mother and eventually marrying her. The film works through a strong, unbearable pathos built because none of the grown-up characters can see the pure embodiment of evil that Preacher is; he is a demented, potentially schizophrenic fundamentalist, a possessed misogynist with a string of previous murders of women in his wake, and a deft, calm purveyor of pocket-knife brutality.
The scene in question is far after the initial wooing of the entire community (through overtly conservative Christianity) and is at the point where the audience’s pathos is logically coming to a narrative head. Or at least it would be if not for Preacher’s powers of deception. In the scene, Preacher is interrogating Willa about her listening outside of the house earlier when he was attempting to bully the location of the money out of Pearl. In any other situation, the pathos would have disintegrated, the character of Willa would have become angry, and maybe even would have confronted Preacher as to his true intent.
Willa is, however, far gone. She has been numbed, blinded and sanitised to the real nature of her new husband. Even when confronted with the truth as to why he is really here, she still insists that it isn’t truly the reason why he married her and this contradiction is at the heart of the scene in question. Behind the scene, the music is highlighting this blindness through a waltz. Walter Schumann, the film’s composer, labels it “Willa’s Waltz” but it would more accurately be called “Willa’s Blind Waltz”; the musicality is of a typical, unquestioning variety, almost seeming to imply contentment. It is this contentment that Willa is ironically feeling due to the sheer brainwashing power of Preacher himself.
The music tries to show to Willa Preacher’s true character when he hits her after not answering his question about the money. When he hits her, the music adds the lower end brass melodies that are of an almost atonal horror (this theme comes to the fore when Preacher is later chasing the children to the river). The music and the hit have no effect and Willa just turns back to face the camera, again in contentment as the waltz plays on. In the diegetic reality of the film, Willa is a character who is clearly after some sort of normal, simple life and the waltz represents this ideal but, and quintessentially so, it is shown to be a false tapestry conceived by Preacher himself.
It’s not until Powell slowly moves over to her with his switchblade to kill her that the character and the music begin to recognise the reality of the situation. Willa’s face, whilst not resisting (she has no resistance left to give) contorts in an accepting but grimacing way as she faces the fate that her naivety has brought her. The gentle melancholy of the waltz breaks down and the atonal brass breaks through; Schumann’s music here is representing this dawning realisation, the finality of a crumbling denial no longer protecting her from death. In early permutations of the music, this waltz has simply continued, the brass gradually building in calming harmonic layers but never revealing anything that suggests the menace of what unfolds in its version here.
In the album version of the soundtrack, which has Laughton himself reading passages of the script and the novel over the music, he sums up the scene perfectly by describing Willa to be “harking” after Preacher who “stands by the window in the moonlight.” The track is aptly named, The Preacher Strikes, and is extended in length from the actual music heard in the scene. With the extra music, its change in tonal shift can be clearly heard, overtly from major to minor. Recombined with the visuals, it spells out clearly the tragedy that is befalling the character.
Willa’s Waltz, however, does not stop there. In one of the film’s most famous visuals, the viewer is shown Willa’s body, underwater and tied to sunken car. Here, the music takes the waltz and gives it an ethereal quality, keeping only the higher textural instruments and leaving everything else behind. In a way, this could be to show the final (and only) contentment left for the character, the tragedy of it being that this simple contentment is death itself. The music could have used more brash effects for the shot of a murdered woman’s body but instead it highlights the final step in the delusion of the character.
Even later on, far beyond the death of Willa, the waltz is morphing into other thematic tools. When Preacher is looking the children after they have fled down river, he flirts his way to the information he needs with the naive fifteen year-old, Ruby (Gloria Castilo). He takes her out for a drink to a bar, fitted out to accommodate the new era of the teenager. The music is a diegetic slow Jazz, blending eventually into nondiegetic strings. Essentially though, the melodies of this music heavily mirror that of Willa’s Waltz, meaning that Preacher’s power and influence over women is again asserting its nature; he is dancing a new waltz to get to the essential information like a chameleon changing its colour. The musical textures and forms have changed but the effects are ultimately the same.
Analysing this one aesthetic segment really highlights why The Night Of The Hunter is one of the great films of 1950s Hollywood. Behind even the most simple of musical and narrative choices, Laughton and Schumann create a new facet to their monstrous creation by showing him to almost cast musical spells upon the characters for his own evil needs. The viewer is rightly weary of such an ease of contentment for they know what lies behind “the sheep’s clothing”; as Laughton points out in his album opening voice-over (directly taken from Matthew 7:15), “for inwardly, they are ravening wolves.”