Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Directed by Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most surreal and unique films of the 1950s, and features Robert Mitchum as a menacing, homicidal fake preacher who depicts his character’s sociopathic tendencies, greed and barely-there patience with alarming alacrity.

Bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves in one of his earliest roles) leaves the knowledge of the treasure trove’s location to his son and daughter moments before his arrest. Awaiting the electric chair, his bunkmate is the seedy Harry Powell (Mitchum) who finds out Harper’s giant mystery and takes it one step further by wooing the Harper’s naiive and foolish wife (Winters) following his execution. While Harper’s wife may be duped, his son – played wonderfully by Billy Chapin – is certainly not, and stands firm along with his sister even when assaulted, threatened and manipulated by Powell.

Eventually, Powell’s guise as a holier-than-thou, friendly preacher can’t be kept up by him anymore and he murders his new wife. With no one to stop him now, Harper’s children flee and embark on a fantastical journey through the swamps and rivers of the South, finally found and taken in by Rachel Cooper, a widow who cares for small children (Gish). Stalking the children, Powell finds the Cooper household and masquerades as the children’s father. Not like the weaker women Powell is used to, Cooper trains a gun on him, telling him to leave. Not to be forgotten, Powell vows to return, and when he does it sets up a wild and satisfying conclusion.

Hunter plays like an adult fairy tale, with themes more mature and advanced than most others of its time period. The script, co-penned by James Agee and Laughton, references the Bible on numerous occasions, and the irony imposed by the hypocritical Powell (who loathes sexual desire, a feeling he combats by murdering women he fancies) by quoting the scripture endlessly and often incorrectly is palpable. He brainwashes his new wife with his bogus Christianity, and endears an older couple (the old busybody played with annoying success by Evelyn Varden) with his false charm. Powell represents a familiar Evangelical – devout, set-in-his-ways, and with a Southern lilt – that also is one of the worst villains in screen history.

The relationship between Powell and the Harper children are realistic and unsettling, especially in several scenes of dialogue where Powell alienates the boy from his sister to get her to tell him the location of the treasure, something she promised never to divulge. This scenes showcase Mitchum’s incredible range and talent, where he puts on the menace and charm in charismatic heaps.

The cinematography by Stanley Cortez uses elements of German  Gotchic expressionism to create bizarre set design with sparse lighting and long, creepy shadow effects. It’s incredibly affecting, particularly in the scenes that show the tall, dark-hatted Mitchum materialize seemingly out of nowhere. The fantastical scenes of the children drifting along the river in their boat, being watched by toads and rabbits as they slowly meander along are a visual treat, and are scenes completely unique to Hunter.

At the film’s end, Cooper stands sentry in her house on her rocking chair, gripping a rifle. Powell is heard off in the distance, singing the haunting melody of “Leaning on Everlasting Arms” and he begins to stalk along the perimeter of the her gate. Cooper then begins to sing along with him, but instead of his ominous, deep-voiced tone of his voice, hers is uplifting and joyful – the way God, if he exists, would have wanted it to sound – and Powell promptly shuts up.

Images courtesy of and, respectively.