Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.
The Night of the Hunter is the only movie that the mellifluous voiced actor Charles Laughton ever directed. That's too bad because this one is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It stars Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters and tells a frightening yet ultimately uplifting story about the fragility of childhood in this often-cruel world.
Mitchum as fake preacher Harry Powell learns of some stolen cash while in jail and later marries the thief's short-on-self-esteem widow and terrorizes her two small children in order to discover its location. He eventually murders his wife and chases the two children across the countryside in the movie's thrilling climax only to be thwarted by goodness personified in the form of Lillian Gish as a woman who shelters runaways and orphans.
Many different ingredients contribute to making The Night of the Hunter so good. Besides the absolutely brilliant acting there is the amazing black and white cinematography, the creepy use of shadows and sounds and fanciful imagery, and several terrifying close-calls of the fleeing children.
Poor Shelley Winters. Once again she ends up in a watery grave as she did a few years earlier in A Place in the Sun and would later in The Poseidon Adventure. There is a chilling shot of her corpse sitting in a car at the bottom of a lake, her blond hair flowing about with the current, clearly visible through the glass-like water. It is an image that resonates long after the final credits.
The performances of the two young Harper children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) are astonishingly real. You will share every bit of their terror. But it is the performances of Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish that make the movie the classic that it is. His completely vile Rev. Powell with LOVE tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and HATE tattooed on the fingers of his left, calling out in a blood-curdling voice, 'Chiiilll...dren!' is balanced by the equally good, upstanding and morally brave Rachel Cooper. She alone stands between the children and an unimaginable fate. As she so aptly puts it, 'I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this world and I know it too.'
Rarely has the theme of good versus evil been so simply yet so effectively wrought in any work of art.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1955)