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One of history's most notable characters was born out of Night of the Hunter. More importantly, it is a character that still sets people on edge today. Robert Mitchum's Preacher Harry Powell is so frightening in this film that he seems to be possessed by some uncontrollable evil. All it takes it a little singing and then the little hairs on the back of your neck begin to stand up…
John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are left without a father when Ben (Peter Graves) steals $10,000 and kills two men. While serving time before his execution, he meets "The Preacher" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). The Preacher is a bluebeard, marrying and killing twenty-five wives because he is sure that this is God's calling. Unfortunately, murder is not why the Preacher is behind bars; he is only serving 30 days for stealing a car. He hears Ben talking about the money in his sleep—but not where the money is hid. Once Ben is hanged, Harry Powell lusts for the opportunity to get out. God has given him the perfect chance: money and a widow.
John is now the man of the house, though still only a boy. He was there when his father came running to the house with the money, and he, along with his little sister, knows where it is hid, but they swore to tell no one. His mother Willa (Shelley Winters) does not know, and when the Preacher arrives in town she is pressured into marrying him, most of all from Mrs. Spoon. Mrs. Spoon says it’s not right for a young woman with two kids to be unmarried, and voilà, the wedding is on. John smells a rat in the form of the Preacher. It’s more than just him trying to take the place of his father; it’s the probing questions that the Preacher asks. John tries to convince his mother, but she is naïve and doesn’t believe him. Everyone in town seems to take the Preacher at face-value. They are blinded by Harry Powell’s posturing and preaching.
It takes a little while before the truth shreds the lies, and the danger is real—real enough to have John and Pearl jump into a boat and float down the river with the money that the preacher seeks without hesitation. The Preacher's greediness lies above all things— even before his wife, whom he leaves at the bottom of a river. And then the boat floats up on the riverbank into the harsh, but loving, arms of Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish), who runs a home for wild and abandoned children. The story concludes in an epic showdown, although understated in climactic standards, with Mrs. Cooper with a rifle, and the Preacher Harry Powell with a switchblade, keeping watch and singing “Leaning on Everlasting Arms”.
Robert Mitchum was phenomenal as Harry Powell, and it is one of the best roles that he has ever played. Unfortunately this film was not nominated for any Academy Awards, and neither was Robert Mitchum. At this time in his career he was not looked upon in high esteem for his possession of marijuana arrests, and it hurt the movies he was in. His performance as the Preacher Harry Powell was thankfully rediscovered along with this movie, and now people can watch it in awe. “Let me tell you the story of good and evil,” Preacher Harry Powell says, displaying his tattooed hands and starting the story.
Mitchum was not the only ace casting of the film. Movie legend Lillian Gish was the perfect casting for the modest Mrs. Cooper. She was exactly the fiery actor needed for her character, and I don’t know why she didn’t replace Shelley Winters for the second to the top of the credit roll. Her portrayal brought her back up into films after her absence of stardom since the 20’s. Shelley Winters’ performance wasn’t particularly noticeable as Willa, but when it was, it was when she was underwater in the old model-T. It’s such a beautiful shot, her hair floating and dancing along with the plants.
This movie is beautiful. The use of shadows and light is reminiscent to film noir in the film's use of long shadows, and backlighting that hides the figures creating a sense of unease. Nowhere is this highlighted more than the river trip scene set at night with Mitchum always lurking near John and Pearl in their rowboat. The serene sights and sounds are constantly waiting to be subverted by a cry into the night "children...". Stanley Cortez must have had the most fun photographing this film, and Director Charles Laughton excellent control of the feeling of the movie, creating the perfect atmosphere and getting the most out of his main actors-- it's a shame that this was his only directorial outing.
This film's critical response is surprising—when it came out it wasn’t well received or appreciated. All that has changed nowadays, and I am proud to say that this eerie film will not be easily forgotten. Night of the Hunter is simply too good to be forgotten.