Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has just stolen $10,000 from the bank, and killed two people in the process. He tells his young children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) where the money is hidden, just before their father is arrested. In prison, Ben shares the details of his larceny with his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who has been arrested for stealing a car, but is in actual fact a serial killer. Upon his release, Powell heads to the Harper homestead, with plans of getting his hands on that money, by whatever means necessary.
I’ve come to appreciate movies set in a time long gone, when people unironically used words like “yonder” and “shoot,” and it wasn’t frowned upon to say that “No woman can raise two growing youngsters alone, that job was made for two.” When a woman could find a switchblade in her man’s coat pocket and shake her head with bemused miscomprehension and murmur “Men.” That’s the kind of time The Night of the Hunter is set in, which makes it all the more jarring to find that it’s about a serial killer potentially trying to pray on two young children who have recently become in his charge.
The film is distinctly episodic – as is so often the case with book adaptations – and is told primarily from the perspective of the two young children, making Powell’s actions all the more terrifying when shown through the eyes of children barely old enough to understand what is going on. Mitchum’s Powell is easily one of the most memorable screen villains to come out of the 1950s, if not cinema in general. He has an unwavering faith that what he is doing is the right thing in the eyes of the Lord. Killing is fine, because the Bible is full of killing, and he needs the stolen money to continue his work of spreading the Good Word about Christianity. Regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs, that steadfast certainty that something so inherently evil as manipulating and threatening children, turning everyone they know against them, is just terrifying. Add to that Mitchum’s relatively friendly exterior that fools almost all the adults around him, and the way he calls out “Chil…dren” is so damn chilling.
The film is beautiful, especially the landscape shots and the use of shadows. This was the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton, more famous for playing the likes of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it’s a shame he didn’t go on to produce more, as other than a few flaws this is a wonderful film. Yes it’s a little slow to start, picking up once the kids make an escape attempt, and the ending doesn’t quite fit together with the rest of the film, but overall this is worth watching if just for Mitchum.
Choose Film 8/10