Plot: Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a hardened criminal who poses as a preacher, to lower people’s guards and use religion to manipulate their thoughts and actions. In his latest prison stint, his cellmate was a man who killed two people and made of with ten thousand dollars, which he hid just before he was apprehended. He is headed for the gallows, but Powell still can’t convince him to reveal the location of the cash. So once he is released, Powell makes his way to the man’s town with a plan, to seduce the widow and uncover the cash, then make off with the loot. His facade as a man of God aids in this plan, as he is welcomed into the community and makes immediate inroads with the widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa’s children have very different reactions to the new father figure in their lives, as young Pearl is excited, while John sees right through Powell from the start. Will Powell be able to locate the money and in the process, how much damage is he willing to cause to find it?
Entertainment Value: This movie was a critical and commercial disaster when first released, but over time, became an acclaimed thriller and one whose influence on cinema is inarguable. This movie was the lone film directed by Charles Laughton and his experience as a stage director is obvious, as the movie is very stylized and feels a lot like a stage production. This is likely why some didn’t connect with the movie, as some of the sets make little effort to seem realistic, opting for a visual design over an immersive sense of location. I can see the criticism, but the visuals here are so dynamic and eye popping, it seems like a fair trade off. The use of shadow and contrast is excellent, but the visual design overall is simply masterful. The stage feel continues over to the cast, who turn in great performances, but again have that stylized presence, with big, broad efforts in most cases. Robert Mitchum dials up the melodrama, but it actually elevates the role, as it hammers home how unstable and off his rocker Powell is. He is a sadistic, cruel man to be sure, but he is also obviously mentally deranged, so the touches of mania he adds do a lot for the character, I think. Shelley Winters is fantastic here as well, in a role that unforgettable and the cast also includes Lillian Gish, Gloria Castillo, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin, and Sally Jane Bruce. I think The Night of the Hunter is a true classic and as such, is beyond highly recommended.
No nakedness. Powell is a man who believes a woman’s body is for maternal purposes, not lustful displays, though his sincerity is questionable. In any case, his strict sexual abstinence ensures no romance brews in this one. The movie has some violence here and there, but no graphic content. Mitchum is shot at and goes totally off the deep end, while the scene of a drowned woman is one that has become iconic and has such a tragic, but beautiful presence. The kids have it rough here as well, with switches and spankings on a regular basis. The dialogue here is excellent, especially Mitchum and his unhinged, sadistic persona. He is able to convey the unsettling presence of Powell with great skill, making even routine interactions seem sinister and you can watch the gears turn as he manipulates those around him. He is able to go from quiet menace to eerie threat to absolute madman, quite a performance. The kids have some fun lines as well, while the dark use of religion also yields some eerie, unnerving moments. As for some craziness, the movie’s stylized approach allows Mitchum to really drive home the mental madness of Powell, so his performance is quite strange at times. But otherwise, this one is pretty grounded and serious in tone. But his role here is more than crazy enough on its own to earn some points.
Overall Insanity: 3/10