Bogus “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) learns cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has stashed stolen loot on his property. So after the demented Powell is released, he charms Ben’s widow (Shelley Winters) into getting hitched, and in time, only Ben’s kids stand between him and the money. As he stalks the siblings relentlessly, they seek refuge with the indomitable Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), setting the stage for a battle of wills.
Rating: 10 out of 10
It’s really a shame that the late, great actor Charles Laughton only directed one film in his entire career. The upside of that is that he created one of the best screen thrillers I have ever seen.
When this film was released back in 1955, it was both a critical and box office failure and it was hard to see how when you watch it today. The performance by Robert Mitchum is nothing short of perfection, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and the screenplay is filled with intelligence and memorable characters. But, because of its lack of success and a less than warm reception from audiences, Laughton was so heartbroken that he decided to never sit in the director’s seat ever again. He would go on to pass away before the film was rediscovered by art film students in the 1970’s. Today, it has been on numerous top 100 lists, was added to the Library of Congress, and is held in the highest esteem by directors such as Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.
The story is simple enough. A man robs a bank, shoots two people dead, and returns home with $10,000 and tells his children to never tell anyone where it’s hidden. While in prison, he talks in his sleep and his cell mate (Robert Mitchum) hears about it. Once Mitchum is released, he goes after the family in hopes of finding the money. The premise, while terrific, is not the only thing that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. There’s a real tension here from beginning to end. The Mitchum character not only has self-motivated intentions but he does it through the fog of posing as a man of God. The underlying current of religion being used as a tool for evil deeds is not only subtle, but also extremely effective. Who back in those times would believe the family of a murderer over a man who claims to be a preacher? This sets up a great cat and mouse between the children who know where the money is and the man who has moved in on their lives in hope of taking it away. I wouldn’t dare give away any more details but just know that the mood and style of this film is unmatched within this genre. I have never seen a movie that had a better sense of gloom through its black and white cinematography and its use of sound except Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Shadows are always lurking, evil permeates through Mitchum singing church hymns, and the rivaling between hush quiet and loud anger is felt deeply when you view it. Trust me, if you enjoy a good thriller, I cannot recommend one higher than “The Night of the Hunter.”