A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he'd stolen in a robbery.
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A man appears. Tall, wearing clothes out of a Western. “LOVE” tattooed across his right knuckles. “HATE” tattooed across the left. He carries a switchblade in his pocket. He claims to be a preacher but has no church. His charm turns to psychotic anger in a flash. More the embodiment of a nightmare than any monster in a horror film, to describe Reverend Harry Powell is to diminish his power. For, in fact, he is not a man but the very presence of evil.
In The Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) journeys from town to town seducing and then murdering widows for their money. His motivations are not lust or greed but rather his personal, warped theology. Arrested for stealing a car, he shares a jail cell with a local thief Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who has hidden $10,000. After Harper’s execution, Powell is determined to marry his widow (Shelly Winters) and find the money. Powell soon discovers that only Harper’s young children Johnny (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is hidden but promised their late father not to reveal its location. A terrifying game of cat and mouse ensues.
The character of Harry Powell is undoubtedly the most memorable aspect of the film. Countless movie villains have borrowed some element from the character. From his explanation of his tattooed hands to that famous scene chasing the children up the basement stairs, Harry Powell is an enduring film monster. The character could have easily become a campy, cartoonish horror movie freak, but Mitchum plays Powell with a snaky charm able to hoodwink the other adults, leaving Johnny and Pearl defenseless. The smile with which Harry Powell presents to the outside world is more frightening than a glare from anyone else. We, the audience, know that Powell is psychopath and so are as trapped in the nightmare as the Harper children.
It takes the other performances, though, for us to believe in Mitchum’s monster. Chapin is surprisingly strong as the resolute Johnny, protecting his sister and his father’s promise. Shelly Winters has a tricky part as a woman who would marry a virtual stranger and believe him over her children, but she plays the insecurity based on the betrayal of a criminal first husband as creating the perfect victim for Powell’s religious hysteria. The silent film star Lillian Gish is excellent as the eventual protector of Johnny and Pearl and the first adult who sees Reverend Powell as a “false prophet.”
The focus on Mitchum’s performance, although well deserved, detracts from the amazing directorial debut of famed actor Charles Laughton. Adapting a novel loosely based on actual events, Laughton is uninterested in creating a true crime story but rather a modern fairy tale aimed at adults (as the original fairy tales themselves were). The film opens with a woman reading a Bible story to children with their heads amongst the stars. Although the story takes place in a seemingly idyllic small town along the Ohio River, Laughton’s nighttime shots manipulate both color and interiors. Borrowing heavily from German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the images are designed to reflect the nightmarish mood rather than capture a realistic setting.
Laughton extends the idea of a modern fairy tale by maintaining the ambiguity that underlies much folklore. A young girl develops a crush on Powell, and learning of his crimes does not seem to deter her. Even more disturbingly, in the scene where Powell is arrested, Laughton echoes the composition of another character being arrested earlier in the film. How this scene plays out is truly jarring. Even though the film ends happily with the exchange of Christmas gifts, we are never sure if we have woken up from the nightmare.
The film’s enduring reputation as a classic (the esteemed French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema named it the 2nd most beautiful film) does not match its initial reception. The Night of the Hunter was a critical and box office failure, and Laughton would never direct another film. If his first film is any indication, we may have missed a great director. Certainly, Laughton created a movie that has had a profound influence on filmmakers as varied as David Lynch to the Coen brothers. On the other hand, one Harry Powell is scary enough.