It's a hard world for little things.
There's a very specific show of brilliance in The Night of the Hunter. Not even referring to the multiple accidental metaphors you can come up with for this show of good and evil (Lillian Gish versus Robert Mitchum) which we'll get to in a minute, but just in this scene - it's one of the most creatively coy things, certainly for its time, and that I've ever seen.
Charles Laughton, who did not direct another feature after this debut, has an understanding of lighting/shadows. And maybe more to the point, lighting shadows. If we pay attention to the silhouette of Robert Mitchum's odious preacher, set outside ready to attack his prey (pray?), there are three things going on at the same time, based only on the lighting behind Mitchum. a) he's almost indistinguishable from the rest of the set, b) the way he's standing places him directly under the floor of the house (good ol' line-of-sight), and c) he is, basically, hunting. As the king of the jungle, it's almost as if he has his prey trapped in a corner.
And he might be a little aware, but just not give a damn, that Lillian Gish is about to protect her cubs. She sits, shotgun calmly in hand, by the window, staring at Mitchum through the night. They are aware of each other, and they know that this is the end of the road for one of them. The lion will either eat, or the mice will trick it over the edge of a cliff.
There are many ways to take this scene, even without taking the rest of the movie into consideration - one, there is the obvious "hunter/prey" analogy that makes perfect sense. Mitchum is hunting Gish and her children. There is, of course, much deeper meaning probably hidden in this film, though slightly out of context with the rest of the film. It's interesting to note that Lillian Gish was one of the "silent queens" back before 'talking pictures' were introduced to the world (for a more profound study of that effect, see last year's The Artist). With the silent era ending officially in the mid 30's, some stars went with it. Remember Sunset Boulevard? Think that. Remember Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Precisely. Gish came out without a scratch, and continued to be a lauded actress. You could see this scene, with the hymn in tact, as a sort of... "this is one for my boys" moment in the new foundation of film. Peace on the battle lines, almost like accepting defeat, but with mutual respect between both armies.
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The inclusion of the hymn, however, in this scene, is the key to the rest of the film. Mitchum's character comes to town posing as a preacher (well, he is actually a preacher, just an asshole in tandem) and begins to lurk and seep into every facet of the town's inner-workings. Including the inner-workings of a young girl named Pearl. See, the Reverent Powell (Mitchum) was to hang for a robbery he committed with a man named Ben (Peter Graves). He escaped prison with only a Bible verse muttered in Ben's sleep as a clue to the hidden location of the money. Powell marries Harper's widow and threatens his children, before they flee with the money to a safe house for stray children, where Rachel Cooper (Gish), the God-fearing stray-kid second mom. The scene posted above is the lead-in to the climax of the film.
Reverend Powell walks around town singing the Showalter hymnal, but leaving out the words "on Jesus", which Ms. Cooper gladly fills in. The scene is meant to be a pretty solid example of invoking the Spirit to protect the children at all costs from "the hunter" who "walks the night, seeking whom he may devour". Sound familiar? "You will know them by their works" Yeah?
Gish's last lines of the film, spoken directly into the camera, are a clear indicator that, while there may be all sorts of allusions you can make in regards to the scene above, it's very clear, however, that this is a story of good versus evil. Evil evil, too. Not that... Disney evil. This is the real stuff. Ms. Cooper protects her children, informing the audience that "children are man at his strongest. They abide. They abide and endure."