Director: Charles Laughton
Screenplay: James Agee, based on the novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Sally Jane Bruce
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Horror, thriller
Summary: 1930s West Virginia, during the Great Depression: Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a serial killer, con man and self appointed preacher, who has the word "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand, and the word "HATE" tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand. He marries lonely widows for their money and then kills them with the switchblade he constantly carries with him.
Arrested for a traffic violation, Powell is sentenced to thirty days in prison where he shares a cell with convicted bank robber Ben Harper (Graves) who has been sentenced to death. Before he was arrested, Harper hid the money from the robbery in a doll belonging to his young daughter Pearl (Bruce) and made her older brother John (Chapin) promise never to reveal to anyone, not even thir mother, where the money is hidden.
Due to Harper talking in his sleep, Powell deduces that the money is hidden at his home and that his children know where it is. Upon his release, Powell arrives at the small town where the Harper family live, and begins to romance Harper's widow, Willa (Winters). Willa soon succumbs to Powell's charms, but John remains suspicious.
After Powell and Willa get married, the children find themselves drawn into an endless nightmare as they are targeted by their relentless, murderous stepfather, who will stop at nothing to discover their secret.
Opinions: This is the only film to be directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton, but the film had such a negative reception on it's original release that he never got the chance to direct again. Now, the film is accepted as a classic.
It is probably one of the most striking horror films ever made, featuring startling imagery, which was inspired by the German expressionist movies of the 1920s. The sequence where the children escape down the river, pursued by the preacher on horseback becomes almost surreal, with it's heavily symbolic, dreamlike visions of nature, and the sequence where the preacher leads the children down to the cellar is genuinely terrifying. There is also a disturbingly beautiful image of a corpse at the bottom of a lake, with her long hair drifting gently in the water, matching the seaweed. The scene where the preacher leads the children down to the cellar is genuinely terrifying.
Despite the almost complete absence of on-screen violence, the movie is extremely suspenseful. It also features in Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell, one of the great screen villains of time, charismatic, sadistic and relentless. Mitchum gives a startling perfomance. Apparently when he was being cast, Laughton said "We're looking for a detestable shit" and Mitchum replied "Present".
The soundtrack blends traditional hymns with it's orchestral score.
The movie is kind of like a Grimm fairy-tale for adults, and an American folk tale. It is truly unforgettable.
"Have I ever told you the story of the left hand and the right hand, the story of Good and Evil?"
- Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter