If you see "Night of the Hunter" when you're too young, you'll have recurring nightmares for the rest of your life. Robert Mitchum, who'd been so sexy and heroic in most of the 53 movies he made prior to this one, IS Preacher Harry Powell, one of the scariest bad men of all time. (Mitchum would return to the well of evil seven years later when he played a chilling Max Cady in 1962's "Cape Fear.") Mitchum played right into a primal terror that so many kids have, that their caretakers will kill them.
At the start of the film, young John Harper (Chapin) sees his real father Ben (Graves) dragged away to prison by the police. Entrusted with the care of his mother Willa (Winters) and little sister Pearl (Bruce), John grows up fast. When Powell (who'd shared a cell with the doomed Ben) swings into Willa's life, John doesn't trust him. Willa drifts towards her second marriage like a subject under hypnosis, learns on her wedding night that her handsome new husband will not have sex with her and subsequently slides into a religious haze. When she finally faces the truth about him, he has no further use for her and John is thrust into a life-and-death game with the Preacher, complicated by Sally's adoration of their stepfather. John knows where his late father's money is hidden and the Preacher knows that he knows. Stanley Cortez's beautiful cinematography follows the children into the night as they make their escape from the Preacher, who stalks them tenaciously.
Everyone here (especially Lillian Gish as the kindly Rachel who helps John and Pearl) is ideally cast and Charles Laughton, who never directed another movie, sustains the mood of horror for 93 minutes. Mitchum relayed directorial instructions to the children since Laughton detested working with kids. (In that light, "The Night of the Hunter," with so many youngsters in the cast, is an odd directing choice for Laughton.) Nevertheless, it's an unforgettable picture with beautiful and haunting imagery and a literate screenplay by James Agee.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 6/26/02
The Night of the Hunter
USA - 1955