Inklings of Truth


Phony Prophets and Mendacious Ministers

By Audrey Stallsmith

How did a supposed man of God become the American Film Institute’s 29th best movie villain of all time?  Assuming, of course, that a villain ever can be called good! 

The character of the Reverend Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, reportedly was based on real-life Harry Powers of West Virginia.  He married and murdered both a widow and a divorcee for their money in the early 1930s.  His killings also included the widow’s three young children.

He, however, was not—nor did he pretend to be—a minister.  That twist was added to the fictional Powell which, combined with Mitchum’s acting abilities, turned the character into a villain extraordinaire.  A con man who made a habit of posing as a pastor and wedding widows for their money, Powell had “love” tattooed on the fingers of one hand and “hate” on the other.

It was obvious which side had won out in his nature, as Powell actually was a pathological misogynist.  He told himself that he killed his wives to rid the world of the corrupting influence of females--and to support his so-called ministry. 

In the film, set during the Depression, he was after the thousands of dollars in cash that his former bank-robber cell-mate had hidden before being hanged.  Only the dead man’s two young children, John and Pearl, knew where that money was, so Powell married their mother to find out.

Although this Mitchum movie didn’t go over well when it debuted in 1955, it has since come to be considered one of the actor’s finest.  The problem at the time may have been that it didn’t quite fit any category.  It had the shadowy lighting of film noir, but the exaggerated nature of both its main character and the plot made it seem more like a fable or fairy tale.

In fact, that last comparison is enhanced by the fact that—because everybody else, including their mother, bought the so-called “pastor’s” florid style and story—the children basically were on their own against him for most of the movie.  In fact, Pearl would have believed the new preacher too, if her more leery older brother hadn’t kept reminding her of her promise to their real father until she saw Powell’s true nature revealed one too many times. 

In the meantime, the pseudo pastor, who knew how to play on female insecurities, had wasted no time in convincing his new wife that she was a loathsome sinner who was largely to blame for her former husband’s crime and execution.  On the night after Powell killed her, when her children needed to escape, even the boy’s one elderly friend was drunk and no help at all.

Mitchum’s character made such a “good” villain because he was every child’s worst nightmare come to life.  And the fact that he insisted on singing what should have been comforting hymns, such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” made him even more creepy.  We might see John and Pearl as a 20th century version of Hansel and Gretel, who fled a cruel stepfather rather than a stepmother, downriver instead of into the forest.

Fortunately, they eventually were taken in by a real Christian, a tough-talking widow who was doing her best to feed and house children who had been made destitute by the Depression.  Because that woman knew her Bible much better than Powell did, she had no trouble recognizing a false prophet when she saw one.  “By their fruits, you shall know them.”  Judging from her comprehending glance at Powell’s hands, I suspect she also knew that men with finger tattoos were likely to be ex-cons.  So she kept her shotgun handy after her first encounter with him.

And, when Powell began singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” outside her dark house one night in an attempt to frighten her, she began singing it right back at him.  But she actually meant it—and added the “leaning on Jesus” refrain which he had left out.  He couldn’t play on her insecurities because her confidence wasn’t rooted in herself.  When he tried to break in, she promptly riddled his behind with buckshot and called the cops.  

She made him look ridiculous, something that the other characters in the movie could have done much earlier if they all hadn’t been so easily led astray.  In fact, they were so angry over how thoroughly they had been deceived that they attempted to lynch Powell at the end of the movie. 

The gullibility of those townspeople and the avariciousness of their deceiver wouldn’t be so unsettling if it wasn’t so true to life.  As I noted in a much earlier article, “there are, unfortunately, plenty of other pastors who apparently see nothing wrong with their thirst for money. I once worked for a woman who liked to watch a so-called 'Christian' cable channel. Some of the shows disgusted me, appearing to be little more than not-very-subtle cons that targeted the elderly and the ill. I actually heard one minister brag about how expensive his suits were. And this con artist purported to serve and emulate the Man who died with only one robe to His name!”

Since that was years ago, I’d hoped that the people who once supported such false prophets might have wised up in the meantime.  But my brother recently mentioned a pastor he’d seen on late night TV who sounded very much like the one about which I’d written back then.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same guy.  

If we are attracted by the idea that we can buy our salvation, health, or prosperity, we obviously haven’t been reading our Bibles enough.  The Sermon on the Mount tells us that it isn’t the well-heeled braggarts who are blessed by God, but the humble, kind, pure hearted, and persecuted. 

“Beware of false teachers,” Christ warned us, “who come disguised as harmless sheep, but are wolves and will tear you apart.  You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit.  You need never confuse grapevines with thorn bushes or figs with thistles. 

“Not all who sound religious are really godly people.  They may refer to me as ‘Lord,’ but still won’t get to heaven.  At the Judgement many will tell me, ‘Lord, Lord, we told others about you and used your name to cast out demons and to do many other great miracles.  But I will reply, ‘You have never been mine.  Go away, for your deeds are evil.’”  (Matthew 7:15-16, 21-23 TLB)

We recently watched Twelve Angry Men too, another movie which reminded me of how we humans are much too easily led.  At the beginning, eleven of the unnamed jurors—many of them peeking around at the others first—raised their hands to vote that the defendant was guilty.  But it only took a few hours for the only one who dissented to sway the others over to his side.

In this case, that was a good thing, since juror number eight—played by Henry Fonda—obviously had given much more thought to the details of the crime than the others had.  And he wasn’t as influenced by some of the latent biases that affected his fellow jurors. 

I suspect many of them preferred to be lost in the crowd, so to speak, because they didn’t want to be responsible for making such an important decision.  But juror number eight knew that he must look at all the facts before coming to a conclusion that could cost another man his life.  Although even that juror wasn’t convinced of the defendant’s innocence, his close examination of the case revealed enough holes in it to eventually cause them all to have reasonable doubts about the prosecutor’s conclusion.    

We have even more at stake when it comes to our spiritual decisions, since it is our souls which are at risk.  If we unthinkingly follow the false prophets down the broad way, we will end up where they are going.

The Night of the Hunter was the only movie that actor Charles Laughton ever directed.  He gave up on directing afterward due to the film’s lack of success.  And perhaps due to the difficulty of working with Mitchum, who reportedly could be a confusing mix of charmer and creep himself.  Some of us, however, find the two acute actors’ combined efforts a little too successful to be comfortable. 

At the end of the movie, when Mitchum’s character was being taken down by the cops, poor young Jim snapped and began beating the fallen poseur with Pearl’s doll in which the loot had been hidden, showering the con man with the cash.  The boy was screaming something to the effect of, “Here, you can have it!  If you want it so badly, you can have it!” 

I suspect that should be our attitude toward the false prophets too.  If they are so intent on crumbling money, power, or prestige, they can have those things, because “they have received all the reward they will ever get.”  (Matthew 6:2b).