Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) marries and murders widows for their money, believing he is helping God do away with women who arouse men's carnal instincts. Arrested for auto theft, he shares a cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) and tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the $10,000 he stole.
Only Ben's nine-year-old son, John and four-year-old daughter, Pearl know the money is in Pearl's doll and they have sworn to their father to keep this secret. After Ben is executed, Preacher goes to Cresap's Landing to court Ben's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He overwhelms her with his Scripture quoting, sermons and hymns, and she agrees to marry him. On their wedding night he tells her they will never have sex because it is sinful.
When the depressed, confused, guilty woman catches him trying to force Pearl to reveal the whereabouts of the money, she is resigned to her fate but the children manage to escape downriver, with Preacher following close behind.
Robert Mitchum ... Harry Powell
Shelley Winters ... Willa Harper
Lillian Gish ... Rachel Cooper
James Gleason ... Birdie Steptoe
Evelyn Varden ... Icey Spoon
Peter Graves ... Ben Harper
Don Beddoe ... Walt Spoon
Billy Chapin ... John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce ... Pearl Harper
Gloria Castillo ... Ruby (as Gloria Castilo)
Director: Charles Laughton / Robert Mitchum (uncredited)
I still hear the lullaby singing sweetly in my head, like a hazy, haunting dream that won't go away.
From the opening scene of the beautiful Lillian Gish and her children, watching over the world in a starry sky, this movie just sinks you into a mesmeric fairy tale land. The camera takes us down in one sweeping move to a scene of children playing, a hot sunny day, and right to the feet of a murder victim. And that sweet music turns on us like a twisted nightmare as the scene chases after a car speeding along a country road to find one of movies worst villains.
Charles Laughton, in sadly his one and only stab at directing, created a masterpiece of horror with Night of the Hunter. The moments of sugar coated sweetness only make this movie even more disturbing as you wonder how the two can inhabit the same world.
Mitchum is terrifying. More-so in a town full of simple folk ready to match him up with the local widow who needs a father for her lit'le n's. Its like he's walked into the middle of a Frank Capra movie and he's going to do what he wants to.
This is not just a great horror movie, but an artist achievement to rival Welles' Kane. The river scene is one of many moments of pure visual splendor. And that sound track just keeps drifting alone, as if trying to coax you into slumber, till the singing madman of your nightmares comes over the hill, relentless. "Chil-dren, Come along now"
You don't watch this movie, it watches you. ...Hush, Lit'le ones, Hush.
It's a shame Charle Laughton, the distinguished actor, didn't direct more films. As he clearly indicates with "The Night of the Hunter", he had a rare gift for guiding a production into achieving greatness. This film, which didn't receive the attention it got when it was released, has turned out to be something discerning movie fans saw from the start, a classic.
Charles Laughton was basically a man of the theater, then came the movies, but he was at heart someone who was equally at ease working on the stage, or performing in front of a camera. Mr. Laughton undertook to direct this screen play written by another distinguished American writer and critic, James Agee, based on the David Grubb's novel.
The result is a magnificent film about to what extreme a man will go in order to steal from two young and innocent children something their father had left for them in trust. The evil character of Harry Powell, a charlatan preacher taking advantage of poor and unsophisticated country folk, is one of the best creations in the novel. Harry Powell doesn't care what he must do to get his hands in the money. He marries the children's mother, a widow who was hoping for some happiness in her life, only as part of his overall scheme of things.
The film is a poetic account of the story with great emphasis on the kindness the children receive at the end from Rachel Cooper, a woman with a heart of gold who took John and Pearl into her home when they needed it.
Robert Mitchum is the evil Harry Powell. It's without a doubt, one of Mr. Mitchum's best screen work. As guided by the director, the actor gives a performance that still surprises whoever watches the film for the first time. Shelley Winters plays Willa, the widow who can't sense the danger connected to the man she marries. Lillian Gish is another luminous presence in the film because she projects no-nonsense kindness and sweetness toward the children she takes into her home.
The film also is enhanced by the brilliant black and white cinematography by Stanley Carter. The film still shows a pristine look fifty years after it was released. Also, the musical score of Walter Shumann adds another layer in the film's texture.
"The Night of the Hunter" is ultimately a work of art that moves the viewer because of the tremendous work its director, Charles Laughton, gave to the movie.
Charles Laughton had only one choice to pay the role of psycho-reverend- conman for his adaption of Night of the Hunter and it was Robert Mitchum. When he's on the screen Mitchum fills it with malevolence.
It's an unusual part for Mitchum. Usually he's terse and laconic in films, but as Harry Powell he's just full of words. Of course he doesn't mean anything he says, but he's just a fountain of speech in Night of the Hunter. Mitchum as he did later on in Thunder Road drew from his hobohemian background of the open road to get his characterization of the Reverend Harry Powell.
Powell who marries and murders women after robbing them blind has more than 25 to his credit in the backwoods of the Ohio river country in West Virginia and Kentucky during the Depression years. But he gets arrested for stealing a car and gets 30 days in jail. Mitchum gets thrown in the same cell as Peter Graves who robbed a bank and killed two people. Graves before he's caught gave the loot to his son Billy Chapin with a promise not even to tell their mother because she's not too swift. How right he's proved to be.
After Graves is hung, Mitchum finishes his sentence with the intention of wooing and marrying widow Shelley Winters. She falls for his line as does her little girl Sally Jane Bruce. But young Billy spots Mitchum for a phony from the gitgo.
The children are in for a lot of heartbreak and tragedy before the film concludes. One of the things I like best about Night is the Hunter is the way Laughton graphically demonstrates the life and poverty of rural America during the Depression. The film is all seen through the eyes of the children as they begin their Huck Finn like odyssey down the Ohio river, escaping from Mitchum.
According to Lee Server's biography of Mitchum, Laughton while great with the adults had no patience at all with the kids. After a while he let Mitchum actually direct Chapin and Bruce in their scenes.
Lillian Gish gives one of her great performances in the sound era of her career as the farm woman who eventually takes in the kids as she does for a few others. She's there to be a contrast to Mitchum. Her actions speak her faith a lot louder than Mitchum's phony ramblings.
Another role I like in this is that of Evelyn Varden. She and husband Don Beddoe employ Shelley Winters at their drug store and she's all full of concern in a showy pharisee like way for the kids. She's totally taken with Mitchum, but when he's unmasked as a phony her rage is something to see on screen.
Sad that Charles Laughton didn't do more behind the camera than this one film. He and Robert Mitchum formed a mutual admiration society that lasted until Laughton passed on inn 1962.
Still Night of the Hunter is a testament to that mutual admiration.
* The sequence purportedly showing the preacher riding a horse in the distance was filmed in false perspective and was actually a midget astride a pony.
* In his biography, Robert Mitchum stated that director Charles Laughton found the script by James Agee totally unacceptable; he paid off Agee, sent him packing and rewrote virtually the entire script himself, uncredited.
* Charles Laughton had no great love for children and so despised directing them in this film that Robert Mitchum found himself directing the children in several scenes.
* So disappointed was he by the poor reception of this film on its initial release both critically and commercially, Charles Laughton vowed never to direct a film again, and he never did. The film he was planning to direct next was going to be a screen adaptation of "The Naked and the Dead."
* Later on in life, Robert Mitchum, who was usually indifferent to such matters, said that Charles Laughton was his favorite director and indicated that this was his favorite of the movies in which he had acted.
* Robert Mitchum was very eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, a moment that particularly impressed Charles Laughton was when Laughton described the character as "a diabolical shit." Mitchum promptly answered, "Present!"
* Charles Laughton originally offered the role of Harry Powell to Gary Cooper, who turned it down as being possibly detrimental to his career.
* Jane Darwell had been suggested for the role of Rachel. However, Charles Laughton held out for Lillian Gish, as he had been a lifelong admirer of her work.
* Reports that James Agee wrote an incoherent screenplay have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first draft. That document, although 293 pages in length and manifestly overwritten (as is common with first drafts), is scene for scene the film Charles Laughton directed. Likewise false are the reports that Agee was fired. Laughton, however much he gnashed his teeth at having such a behemoth of a text in his hands with only five weeks to go before the start of principal photography, calmly renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it in half. He did. In Laughton's stage work (GALILEO, CAIN MUTINY COURT MARTIAL, etc), the great actor demonstrated he was a script editor of genius -- he could induce the most stubborn and prideful writer to cut, cut, cut. And so he did in Agee's case. Later, apparently at Robert Mitchum's request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and Laughton. Letters & documents located in the archive of Agee's agent Paul Kohner bear this out -- they were brought to light by Laughton biographer Simon Callow, whose excellent BFI book about NIGHT OF THE HUNTER diligently sets this part of the record straight. The Agee first draft may eventually be published, but it has been read by scholars -- most notably Prof. Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due." To assert Agee's moral right to his screen credit in no way disputes Laughton's greatness as a director -- clearly, he was as expert with writers as he was with actors -- but Agee has been belittled and even slandered over the years, when his contribution to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was of primary and enduring importance. (Submitted by F.X. FEENEY, film critic and author, who has read the original Agee script.)
# SPOILER: The Swedish title spoils the film, as it tells where the money is hidden.
# SPOILER: Robert Mitchum was openly contemptuous of Shelley Winters throughout the shooting of the film and later claimed to have wished Charles Laughton had actually used Winters in the scene when her character's body is seen dead underwater.