On release from prison, where he befriended a young bank robber / killer who has been condemned to die, psychopathic preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) tracks down the man’s widow (Shelley Winters) and marries her in order to lay his paws on the heist money. Thwarted in his attempts to discover where the loot is hidden, the frustrated Powell turns his attention to the widow’s two young children who flee with the stash into the countryside where they take refuge with a shotgun-toting spinster (Lilian Gish) while the menace of the marauding preacher looms.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
In this and 1952’s Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum gave two of the most electrifying portraits of evil in anyone's career. After arriving in Cresap’s Landing, Powell easily convinces the dim-witted Willa (Winters) that he was her husband’s confidante in jail, but her nine-year-old son John (Billy Chapin) is frightened and suspicious of the man with the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on the knuckles of alternate hands.
Powell, a misogynist who despises women because they arouse carnal impulses in man, is in constant converse with God. He cannot remember how many widows he has married and murdered (“six or twelve”) but needs their money to carry on with “the Lord’s work.” When her brother is threatened, five-year-old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) tells The Preacher where the $10,000 is hidden but the children escape before Powell has a chance to secure the cache. The kids (they were directed by Mitchum; Laughton loathed child actors) are sheltered by 60-year-old Bible-belter Rachel (Gish) but John is sure they haven’t shaken off the fanatical preacher who closes in for the kill.
Adapted from the Davis Grubb bestseller, Night Of The Hunter is a gut-churning Gothic frightmare that is part religious allegory, cautionary tale and fairytale that warns of false prophets and predatory wolves. Sexual symbolism is served by The Preacher’s phallic switch-blade: “Don’t touch my knife,” he warns the unblinking Pearl. “That makes me mad…very, very mad.” This “nightmarish Mother Goose tale” (as Laughton described it) is inspired by the work of D.W. Griffith and stunningly shot in the German expressionist style, with emphasis on minimum light and long, creeping shadows. Hymns are hauntingly woven into the narrative and there’s a paralysing clash between good and evil when Powell’s dread-filled rendition of Leaning On The Everlasting Arms melds with Rachel’s heartfelt and reverent overlay.
The studio (United Artists) knew not what to do with this chilling and timeless masterpiece. They “threw it away” on a double bill with a B western but it traumatised kids at matinees and was banned in Memphis. Laughton was so devastated by its box-office failure that he never directed another film.