A murderous preacher cons his way into marrying a
widow whose husband hid $10,000 from a robbery.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton
Written by James Agee
Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish,
James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin,
Sally Jane Bruce, Gloria Castillo
Based on the novel by Davis Grubb
The Night of the Hunter remains of the creepiest horror thrillers of the 1950's, at a time when legitimate horror was severely held back in American markets. Yet, Charles Laughton, a first and only time director, managed to bring together a terrifying score, a script involving children in danger, and an unforgettable monster in Harry Powell (Mitchum) into something that will live forever. Combine those qualities with an almost "campfire warning" atmosphere, and it's no wonder this film is so highly regarded over sixty years later.
After a robbery gone wrong, Ben Harper (Graves) hides ten grand in his daughter's doll, and is then arrested and hanged for murder. His cellmate is Harry Powell, a murderous preacher who hears about the money and marries Ben's widow (Winters) when he gets out. But the kids can tell Powell is bad news, and Powell is running out of patience. The film turns from crime drama into full-blown horror around the time Powell starts hunting the kids down. It culminates in a standoff between Powell and Mrs, Cooper (Gish), the kindhearted lady who takes in the kids. There are moments of genuine fright in this movie, so I can only wonder how the audience in 1955 perceived it.
The Night of the Hunter is one of those films that broke through the Hays Code, at the expense of Laughton's directing career, and stood out as a film that was something different. Robert Mitchum remains one of cinema's most evil scumbags in a performance that serves as a template for characters like Freddy Krueger and John Kramer. For that alone, this film is supremely important.