Duet in the dark

One of the memorable features about the Coen Brothers recent True Grit is the old gospel hymn that keeps threading its way through the film. "Leaning, leaning..." I just heard that same hymn threading itself through another film, The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 thriller directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.

We learned of this film through the Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list, which we've been using to find titles for our Netflix queue. The list is curated by the people at Image and is revised each year.

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Mitchum plays the bad guy, Harry Powell, who poses as a preacher. Ironically, his presence is always heralded by his quiet steady singing of "Leaning, leaning..." Gish plays the story's heroine, Rachel Cooper. In my favorite scene these two are in a night-time stand-off. Powell is in the yard of the house Cooper is guarding. In the house sleep the children Powell has been pursuing. Coming from the dark yard we hear "Leaning, leaning..." the film's clear marker for fear and danger. On the porch, we see Gish rocking in her chair, a shotgun on her lap. Finally she joins him in the singing and at first we are taken aback. They are now singing a duet, "Leaning, leaning..." He stalking, she rocking, but both singing the same song. Then it hits us that she is not letting this gospel be usurped. It will not stand as a marker for evil. She doesn't raise her voice or turn the song into a shouting match. Weary but determined she adds a defining clause in the beat between the two consecutive Leaning's. Leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus), safe and secure from all alarms; Leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus), leaning on the everlasting arms.