“Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil?”
In Depression-times, a man robs a bank out of desperation to provide for his family in the long-term. Having killed two men doing so, he is immediately hunted down by the police, but not before he hides the money he stole. Knowing that the only two other people, his children, are aware of the location of the money, he extracts an oath from them both that neither will tell a soul about the money – not even their own mother.
The father is hauled off to jail and while he awaits execution for his crimes, a strange man comes to share his cell. Preacher Harry Powell, a man who knows that the Lord “don’t mind the killins” but hates “other things, lacy things…things with curly hair” is a fire and brimstone type of preacher, a man who has the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles, but one who was nonetheless caught with a stolen car. Upon finding out his new cellmate’s crimes, Powell attempts to worm out the secret of the hidden money, but all he gets are some mumbled words from his cellmate in his sleep.
So, upon his release, Harry Powell tracks down the man’s widow – Willa – and promptly marries her, hoping to leverage his position into forcing the children, John and Pearl, into revealing the location of the money. The children refuse, and Willa eventually begins to put the pieces together. Upon revealing that she knows that he’s hounding the children about the money, Powell kills her and tells the town people that she ran off after he found her drinking.
John and Pearl run away after being threatened by Powell. Pearl reveals the location of the money, but they make their escape, eventually seeking refuge with an older woman who takes in unwanted children, but it’s not long before Harry Powell shows up again, looking for the children – and the money.
I think the most striking thing about Night of the Hunter is the fact that it feels very unique for its time period. The way the director made the movie is something wholly different than what you’re used to seeing from the mid fifties.
Robert Mitchum, as I’ve said before, is so seriously underrated in comparison to his peers. His portrayal of Harry Powell is at once creepy and yet believable; even when Powell is at his best in the presence of others, Mitchum gives him a palpable sense of danger under a veneer of the upright holy man. Mitchum’s “love/hate — right/left” scene ought to be in a montage of great scenes, right up there with Stewart and Bogart.
More than anything, Charles Laughton, the director, seemed to have a great understanding of the fact that film can transcend things and say so much more than a lot of people realized.
He sets everything in a way that’s realistic, yet at the same time, foreign, leaving you just a little uneasy, which of course, lets Mitchum come right in and freak you the hell out.
Shelley Winters plays Willa, the wife and mother who eventually marries Powell. I wouldn’t say she does a good job, but she’s not bad, either. In fact, most of the movie it feels like she’s really reaching for something, but she can’t quite get there. It also hurts her performance that Mitchum is so damn good. However, it does make you sad when she dies, for someone who has demonstratively suffered so much during the film, and she does well enough that you care about what happens to her in the end.
The kids are kid actors; they do their best, but nothing fantastic. Mitchum carries the load of the film and he does it excellently.
Lillian Gish does very well as Miss Cooper, the kind lady who takes poor, unwanted children in and is strong enough to hold her own against Mitchum. She is part of the only reason I would say the film is not nearly perfect; her asides to the audience are distracting and jarring, at times.
The main fortes of Night of the Hunter are the fact that Laughton was an excellent director, Mitchum is terrific and the story is paced well to provide varying levels of tension throughout the entire film. It’s an absolute loss that Laughton never directed another film, because one can only imagine what Laughton could have done if Night of the Hunter was a jumping-off point for him. The plot and story move along well enough, to where you never tire of where you are in the story, nor are you anticipating the next turn in the bend; the viewer is merely watching and paying attention to the suspense in the here-and-now. Not just that, Night of the Hunter was freaky, scary and perverse in a time you wouldn’t necessarily expect a Hollywood film to tackle some weird issues (like Harry Powell’s issues with women) and the shocking thing is that Night of the Hunter still holds up. It’s still freaky. It’s still scary, fifty years later, and Mitchum is still intimidating and scary.
More than anything, Night of the Hunter is still excellent.