The Night of the Hunter is a remarkable parable about good and evil set in rural America.
Evil comes in the form of Robert Mitchum’s psychopathic preacher, Reverend Powell, with ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed on his knuckles.
Good comes triumphantly in the form of Lillian Gish, who rescues two children from his rabid clutches as he pursues them down the river.
Told mostly from the point of view of children, the story is like a fairy-tale in its simplicity, and yet seethes with adult complications.
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is in prison awaiting execution for murder. His cellmate – the Reverend Powell – tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to reveal where he has stashed $10,000 – the fruits of his crime.
When Powell is released he makes a bee-line for Ben’s home and the newly widowed Willa (Shelley Winters). Powell marries her for the money without realising that her two children are the only ones who know the location of the cash.
Not one to be deterred, Powell does not hold back and reveals his true, evil self in his search for the riches.
Drawing on elements as diverse as Expressionism, American primitive paintings and the rural dramas of D W Griffith, Charles Laughton – in his first outing as a director – fashions a film of haunting beauty which moves effortlessly between the nightmarish and the lyrical.
In a remarkable siege finale, Mitchum’s menacing drone of an edited hymn (‘Leanin”) is joined and completed by Gish, who knows the full lyric (‘Lean on Jesus’) and adds her voice to his, banishing his darkness aurally before he is actually defeated.
Preacher Harry Powell
Sally Jane Bruce
Mary Ellen Clemons