The Night of the Hunter (1955)


(director: Charles Laughton; screenwriter: James Agee/story by Davis Grubb; cinematographer: Stanley Cortez; editor: Robert Golden; music: Walter Schumann; cast: Robert Mitchum (Preacher Harry Powell), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon), Peter Graves (Ben Harper), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper), Gloria Castillo (Ruby), Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Gregory; United Artists; 1955)

“Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a work of inspired brilliance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a work of inspired brilliance. It’s a weird and chilling tale of biblical proportion on good and evil, with Robert Mitchum as the psychopathic preacher with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles. The film has the evil authority religious figure trying to wrest away the souls of two innocent children.

It’s set during the Depression in the rural Bible Belt. Ben Harper steals $10,000 from a bank to feed his poor family but is forced to shoot two men in his escape. Before he is arrested, he tells his two young children, John and Pearl, the hiding place of the money but not before he makes them promise to tell no one, not even their naive mother Willa (Shelley Winters).

In jail, Ben’s cell mate is ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who overhears Ben talking in his sleep about the hidden money. However, Ben does not reveal where he hid the loot before he is hanged. This prompts the preacher upon his release from prison to venture to Ben’s hometown where he soon befriends the widow and then marries her in order to try and get the money. Young John realizes that Harry is a bad person and a liar but all the adults are fooled by Harry’s convincing preaching style and nobody will believe the boy. But when Harry kills his new bride on their wedding night (her corpse lies in a Model T at the bottom of the river with her hair billowing in the current among the weeds), John and Pearl are forced to embark alone on a frightening journey to escape from their wrathful stepfather. The children take flight downriver under the brilliant moonlight with the girl clutching her precious doll that is stuffed with the stolen money, gliding in eerie silence while watched over by animals hidden in the darkness that are filmed in close-ups. They find refuge in a home for abandoned children presided over by the quirky, scripture-quoting Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). The two adult Baptist followers, Powell and Cooper, sit on opposite sides of the fence (literally and figuratively) of good and evil waiting for the ‘deliverance from evil’ conclusion, as they both sing to themselves the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

James Agee’s script faithfully treats Davis Grubb’s novel with a surprising amount of levity mixed with an appropriate blend of horror and lyricism, and sets up a striking fairy-tale mood. The film is aided by cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s noirish atmospheric German Expressionism and the haunting music by Walter Schumann. The masterful sinister performance by Mitchum might be the gifted actor’s career best. Neglected on its first release, The Night of the Hunter is now deservedly considered as one of the best films ever made.