The Night of the Hunter
Released – September, 1955
Directed By – Charles Laughton
Starring – Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe).
Description – Harry Powell has a unique way of serving God. He believes that those women who arouse carnal insticts in men should be done away with. Especially, if they have money.
Having been arrested for auto theft, Harry is now sharing a cell with convicted robber Ben Harper. Harper is scheduled to hang for his part in the crime and Harry has been trying in vain to get Harper to reveal where he hid the stolen money.
Harper has given the location of the money only to his young son John. John does not share the secret with anyone including his mother and younger sister Pearl. The only clue Powell can come up with is a Bible phrase that Harper mumbles while sleeping: “And a little child shall lead them.”
Believing that Powell’s children know the location of the money and upon his release, Harper travels to Cresap’s Landing, West Virginia as the Reverend Harry Powell with a plan to court and wed Powell’s widow Willa.
Overwhelming her with his charm, Scripture quoting, hymns, and sermons, Willa agrees to marry Harry as a means to her own salvation. Harry’s self-defined religious beliefs toward carnal relations soon become evident to Willa as Harry informs her that they, although married, will never have sexual relations because he believes that would be sinful.
Willa, now confused and depressed, overhears Harry questioning the children about money and begins to realize the threat of the families situation. Growing impatient and wanting Willa out of the way leaving him with the children, Harry murders Willa and throws her body into the river.
By now, John has told his sister Pearl about the money and, by threatening John, Pearl has told Harry. With their mother now dead, John and Pearl manage to get to the money first and attempt to escape downriver.
However, the Reverend is not far behind.
NOTABLE: In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The motion picture is based on the 1953 novel by the same name. Both draw on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 after having murdered two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by Charles Laughton, and although not an immediate success has grown in stature, primarily due to Robert Mitchum’s performance, and is considered a Film Noir classic.
Empire Magazine has ranked this film #71 on its 500 Greatest Films List.
Charles Laughton originally offered the role of Harry Powell to actor Gary Cooper, who turned the offer down feeling that the role would prove detrimental to his career.
Personal Note: I like this film primarily due to the performance of Robert Mitchum. Anyone with the word Love tattooed on one hand and Hate on the other makes a menacing villain.
Mitchum does a great job as a smooth-talking, evil, psychotic religious fanatic. An eerie film. While not a critical or commercial success, The Night of the Hunter has developed a cult following and is a favorite among film noir fans.