The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Brief Intro

“The Night of the Hunter,” directed by Charles Laughton in 1955, is a psychological thriller that combines suspense and horror with a profound narrative. The film follows the sinister preacher Harry Powell, who marries and murders a widow to find hidden money, only to be outwitted by her children. This classic film is known for its haunting imagery, powerful performances, and masterful use of literary devices to tell a gripping story.

Literary Devices Used in The Night of the Hunter

The film employs numerous literary devices to enhance its storytelling. Here’s a detailed look at ten key devices, each illustrated with specific scenes.

1. Symbolism

Movie SceneDevice Example
The knuckles of Harry Powell, tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE.”These tattoos symbolize the duality of human nature, a central theme in the film.
The river as a symbol of escape and purification.As the children drift down the river, it symbolizes their journey from danger to safety and innocence to experience.

2. Foreshadowing

Movie SceneDevice Example
The shadow of Harry Powell creeping over the children’s room.This scene foreshadows the danger and evil that Powell represents.
Rachel Cooper’s warning to the children about false prophets.It hints at the threat Powell poses before he arrives.

3. Metaphor

Movie SceneDevice Example
The predatory bird imagery associated with Powell.Powell is frequently compared to a bird of prey, highlighting his predatory nature.
The doll containing the stolen money.The doll symbolizes innocence and the corrupted pursuit of wealth.

4. Irony

Movie SceneDevice Example
Powell, a preacher, being a serial killer.This is dramatic irony, as the audience knows Powell’s true nature while the characters do not.
The children’s trust in Powell initially.Situational irony as they trust the person who is their greatest threat.

5. Motif

Movie SceneDevice Example
The recurring hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”This song is associated with Powell and contrasts his evil nature with a seemingly benign melody.
The recurring imagery of hands.Hands symbolize actions and intentions, both good and evil.

6. Allegory

Movie SceneDevice Example
The battle between good (Rachel Cooper) and evil (Harry Powell).The characters symbolize broader concepts of good versus evil.
The children’s journey.Represents the loss of innocence and the quest for safety and truth.

7. Juxtaposition

Movie SceneDevice Example
The innocence of the children versus the malevolence of Powell.This contrast highlights the themes of purity and corruption.
The peaceful river scenes versus the tense confrontations.Enhances the film’s dramatic tension by contrasting calm and danger.

8. Hyperbole

Movie SceneDevice Example
Powell’s exaggerated villainy.His character is almost a caricature of evil, emphasizing the threat he poses.
Rachel Cooper’s unwavering goodness.She embodies an ideal of protective, maternal strength.

9. Imagery

Movie SceneDevice Example
The stark, shadowy cinematography.Creates a haunting, gothic atmosphere.
The underwater scene of Willa Harper’s body.This macabre image is both beautiful and horrifying.

10. Allusion

Movie SceneDevice Example
Biblical references throughout Powell’s dialogue.These allusions enhance his deceptive use of religion.
Rachel Cooper as a Mary-like figure.Her character alludes to the Virgin Mary, symbolizing purity and protection.

Character Analysis Through Literary Devices

Harry Powell

Literary DeviceExplanation
SymbolismPowell’s tattoos (LOVE and HATE) symbolize his internal struggle and the duality of his nature.
IronyThe fact that Powell is a preacher but also a serial killer creates dramatic irony, as his appearance and profession contrast sharply with his actions.

Willa Harper

Literary DeviceExplanation
MetaphorWilla represents the vulnerable and easily manipulated, embodying the tragic consequences of naivety and trust in false prophets.
ForeshadowingHer uneasy feelings about Powell and her fate subtly hint at the impending danger.

John Harper

Literary DeviceExplanation
SymbolismJohn’s character symbolizes innocence and the protective instincts of youth.
MotifHis protective nature and distrust of Powell recur throughout the film, underscoring his role as a guardian.

Pearl Harper

Literary DeviceExplanation
JuxtapositionPearl’s innocence is starkly contrasted with the evil surrounding her, highlighting the theme of corrupted innocence.
AllegoryShe represents pure innocence and the inherent goodness that evil seeks to corrupt.

Rachel Cooper

Literary DeviceExplanation
AllegoryRachel symbolizes the protective, nurturing aspect of goodness, a maternal figure standing against malevolence.
HyperboleHer character is portrayed with almost saint-like qualities, emphasizing her role as a savior.

Character Dynamics

The relationships between characters are pivotal in driving the narrative and exploring themes. The tense dynamics between Powell and the children illustrate the struggle between good and evil. Rachel Cooper’s relationship with the children symbolizes hope and redemption, offering a stark contrast to Powell’s malevolence.

Thematic Analysis

Good vs. Evil

Literary DeviceExplanation
SymbolismThe “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on Powell’s knuckles symbolize the central conflict of the film.
AllegoryThe characters of Rachel Cooper and Harry Powell serve as allegorical figures representing good and evil.

Innocence vs. Corruption

Literary DeviceExplanation
JuxtapositionThe children’s innocence is starkly contrasted with Powell’s corruption, emphasizing the theme.
ImageryThe use of light and shadow to portray innocence and corruption visually.

Religion and Hypocrisy

Literary DeviceExplanation
IronyPowell’s guise as a preacher is a profound example of religious hypocrisy.
AllusionBiblical references in Powell’s dialogue highlight the misuse of religion for evil purposes.

Survival and Resilience

Literary DeviceExplanation
MetaphorThe river journey symbolizes the children’s struggle for survival and escape from evil.
ForeshadowingEarly warnings and signs hint at the resilience the children must exhibit to survive.

Cinematic Techniques That Enhance Literary Devices

Visual and Sound Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
SymbolismLighting and shadowStark contrasts between light and dark enhance the symbolic struggle between good and evil.
IronySoundtrackThe use of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” ironically underscores the malevolence of Powell.
MetaphorVisual imageryThe predatory bird imagery visually represents Powell’s character.
JuxtapositionSet designContrasting settings (peaceful river vs. threatening interiors) highlight the film’s themes.
ImageryCinematographyThe film’s gothic, shadowy style creates a haunting atmosphere.

Key Scene Analysis

Key Scenes

Scene 1: Powell’s Arrival

  • YouTube Link
  • Breakdown: Powell’s arrival is marked by ominous music and shadowy lighting, foreshadowing his malevolent intentions and creating dramatic tension.

Scene 2: The River Escape

  • YouTube Link
  • Breakdown: The children’s escape down the river is a visual metaphor for their journey from danger to safety, with the serene water symbolizing hope and renewal.

Scene 3: Final Confrontation

  • YouTube Link
  • Breakdown: The showdown between Rachel and Powell is a powerful clash of good vs. evil, enhanced by dramatic lighting and tense music.


To test your understanding of the literary devices used in “The Night of the Hunter,” take this interactive quiz:


  1. What do Powell’s tattoos symbolize?
    • a) His love for the children
    • b) The duality of human nature
    • c) His favorite knuckle rings
    • d) His criminal past
  2. Which literary device is used in the depiction of the river journey?
  3. How does the film use lighting and shadow?
    • a) To create a cheerful atmosphere
    • b) To emphasize the struggle between good and evil
    • c) To highlight the comedic elements
    • d) To make the film more colorful

Answer key:

  1. b) The duality of human nature
  2. b) Metaphor
  3. b) To emphasize the struggle between good and evil