Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s one-shot masterwork The Night of the Hunter is one of the great villains not only of American cinema but of American narrative, standing shoulder to shoulder with Pap Finn and Judge Holden as well as with Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. Mitchum, with his sleepy Dean Martin eyes and sonorous preacher tones, makes Harry a figure of infinite menace (“Don’t he ever sleep?”) and cruelly plausible impunity. Since Harry passes himself off as a preacher — though we’re given no evidence that his fierce Biblical rhetoric is fake — most people, by which we mean most rural Americans circa the Depression, take him at his word. Thus he has been roaming the dusty lands, marrying and murdering women and moving on. The LOVE/HATE tattoos on his knuckles essentially give away his modus operandi.
Harry is in the slammer for a stolen car when he hears that his cellmate (Peter Graves), soon to be hanged for armed robbery and murder, has stashed his money somewhere. Harry pays a visit to the cellmate’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and soon marries her. Willa is thoroughly taken in by Harry’s righteous patter, to the point of publicly shaming herself for driving her husband to rob money. Her son John (Billy Chapin), however, sees Harry for what he is. John’s duty, as set down by his father, is to protect his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in whose doll the money is stashed.
A quicksilver 92 minutes long, The Night of the Hunter knocks most of its plot out of the way within the first hour or less. The children escape Harry, just barely, as he hums manically to himself while chest-deep in the river and then ramps up to a blood-freezing scream. It’s a heart-stopping, terrifying moment, the animal unleashed and revealed. As the kids float away on their skiff, the movie becomes a dark and stylized mirror image of a Disney film, with wild animals dominating the frame’s foreground. The children eventually meet the Fairy Godmother — Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who takes in stray children and has a much purer relationship with the Lord. Rachel lives by the Word (though preferring to paraphrase the Bible’s stories rather than spouting Biblical homilies) while Harry is a son of Satan. Both are soaked in American Christianity, and while the movie doesn’t have a scrap of hypocrisy or cant, it respects Rachel. A movie that for its first two-thirds could be taken as an acidic comment on Christian piety flips into one of the few genuinely Christian films in the best sense.
Laughton and the great cinematographer Stanley Cortez conjure a blatantly fairy-tale American South, dotted with glittering stars and rumpled gothic homes; it shares surreal DNA with The Fool Killer (1965) and The Reflecting Skin (1990), both also fables about innocence crushed by adult corruption and perversity, both also directed by non-Americans. These movies seem to be made by people whose impressions of the South come more from reading Flannery O’Connor than from actually visiting the South. (A good deal of Night of the Hunter was filmed in California.) Laughton isn’t after bland literalism here; this is a child’s nightmare of losing both parents and never being believed and falling under the shadow of the boogeyman. Ultimately its concerns are universal, though its milieu is sweatily specific.
The wry screenplay, which catches the stilted way spiritually aspirational Americans talk, was adapted from the Davis Grubb novel by the troubled James Agee, a celebrated journalist and film critic who had his own struggle with the devil going on. Agee delivered an enormous script, which Laughton winnowed down to its essentials; for years, until Agee’s draft was unearthed, the standard screenwriter-unfriendly line — perpetuated in his Great Movies review by Roger Ebert, who was working from the false info available at the time he filed it in 1996 — was that Laughton fired Agee and he and Mitchum did a page-one rewrite. Regardless, a personal film collection without Agee’s two most famous efforts, this and The African Queen, is impoverished indeed. The writing involving Rachel’s addresses to the audience gets a tad fancy (“They abide and they endure” — well, except for the kids who don’t), but that simply reinforces the movie’s pull as a dark fantasy. Agee, who drank and smoked to excess, did not live to see the film’s premiere; he died of a heart attack two months prior, at age 45.
It’s a moonshine-madness classic, almost but not quite a film noir, chiaroscuro enough to weigh in as a vintage thriller but frightening enough (the prolonged sequence where Harry chases the children) to qualify as one of the greatest of horror films as well. Stephen King singled it out in his Danse Macabre as one of the films that can organically kick off with “Once upon a time,” and mentioned perhaps the starkest image of murder in American cinema of the ’50s — Shelley Winters in the car at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting lazily to mimic the seaweed. The irony, not lost on Laughton and Cortez or on us, is that Winters had never been more beautiful — Esther Williams as the waterlogged angel of death. (What we see isn’t actually Winters, but a very convincing dummy.) Laughton allows poor naive Willa the grace that eluded her in life. Eventually we figure the car will be dragged out, as Marion Crane’s car was in the final shot in Psycho, but we don’t need to see that here; it’s as if Willa acts from the afterlife to provide her children with safe passage on the river. The movie is sardonic but not cruel.