The world is not easy for little things.
Charles Laughton once described his sole directorial effort as a "nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale." Based on a novel by David Grubb, 1955's The Night of the Hunter is at its essence an elemental elegy to the classic battle between good and evil.
While audiences in the '50s may not have known then what to make of it, Night steamed on ahead...and has since gone on to be hailed as one of the best American films ever made, in any genre.
Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Laughton's camera angles and lighting techniques were what you were more apt to find in art-house films. Robert Mitchum, who had made his movie debut in 1943, was cast as the evil reverend.
Mitchum's acceptance of the part secured financing for the project. It was the perfect match of actor and role...and is considered one of his finest performances.
Shelley Winters, who was then establishing herself as a reliable character actress, was cast as the ill-fated Willa Harper. Winters had once been given acting lessons by Laughton and under his direction, she gave what is certainly one of her most subtle and nuanced performances.
For inspiration, Laughton watched the films of silent era director D.W. Griffith. Upon viewing his pictures, Laughton thought of the brilliant idea to cast Griffith's favorite actress, Lillian Gish. Gish, who had made her first film in 1912, would be the perfect counterpoint to Mitchum's villain...the personification of morality and decency.
The result was a dream-like world that was original...and frightening. Laughton told Look Magazine: "I set out to make audiences scream and, by jove, I did it!"
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing. But inwardly, they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore, by their fruits, ye shall know them.
Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a dishonest man of God who preys on widows for their money. He has conversations with his Creator, believing that he has orders to carry out his "mission." After all, the Bible is "filled with killings."
The body of his latest victim has been discovered by a group of children but the preacher has moved on. He attends a burlesque show, where he is both attracted and repulsed by the dancer on the stage.
Overtly demonstrating this dual personality, Harry has the words HATE and LOVE written on the knuckles of his hands.
There isn't much time to enjoy the show, however. Harry is promptly arrested by a police officer for car theft and is sentenced to the Moundsville Penitentiary for 30 days.
Two little children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), are playing in a field outside their house. Their dad, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) comes home and is agitated and anxious. He has $10,000 cash in his hand and frantically searches for a place to hide it. With the police in pursuit, he stuffs the bills in Pearl's doll.
Ben makes his son promise to never tell where the money is and to always protect his little sister. The cops arrive and he is taken under arrest, much to the horror of his kids. Ben's wife Willa (Shelley Winters) doesn't understand what has transpired.
The crime was much more than just stealing dough. For the murder of two local men during a bank robbery, Ben is sentenced to death by hanging. Until his execution, he shares a cell in the prison with Harry Powell, who tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the money. To be used for the work of the Lord...
No dice. Ben doesn't trust him and has no use for an incarcerated preacher who carries a switchblade in his pocket.
The execution is carried out and the kids in town tease John and Pearl about the death of their father by singing a grisly nursery rhyme. Children can be so cruel.
Hing, hang, hung...see what the hangman done. Hung, hang, hing...see the robber swing...
Willa, now a widow, works at an ice cream parlor owned by Walt and Icey Spoon (Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden). Icey reminds her how difficult it is to raise two children alone but Willa doesn't want another husband at the moment.
One night, John and Pearl are frightened by a stranger in their midst. Harry is in town and the first image the youngsters see is his imposing shadow. The next day, Harry ingratiates himself into Willa's life. He tells her he was with her deceaed husband right up until the end, having been "employed" by the prison.
At the parlor, Willa, Icey and Walt are charmed by the preacher and are taken by his demonstration of how the hand of LOVE overcomes the hand of HATE. Icey even invites Harry to a picnic, where he leads a group in prayer and song.
Willa senses that her son doesn't care for Harry. But she starts to believe that she has found someone who can take care of her and her family. She's relieved when Harry lies to her by saying that Ben told him what he did with the money. He says it's at the bottom of the river, wrapped around a 12-pound cobblestone.
Little John hangs around Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), a local fisherman and the town drunk. After leaving his house one evening, John finds out from Harry that he is about to marry his mother. When John blurts out that Harry will never find out from him where the money is hidden, Harry suddenly realizes the kid knows where it is.
Willa and Harry are married. Pearl loves her new stepfather but John has to remind her about the promise made to their father to keep the secret.
The newlyweds go on their honeymoon and Willa finds out that this is not the kind of marriage she was expecting. Harry accuses her of wanting sex and makes her feel ashamed and dirty. Before going to bed, she prays: "help me to be clean...so I can be what Harry wants me to be."
Soon, Harry's influence is complete. Brainwashed, Willa confesses to his congregation that her love of material things led Ben to kill for money. She adds that the Lord stepped in and told Ben to throw the money in the river.
One evening, Harry nearly discovers the secret when Pearl takes the money out of the doll to play with it. John hides it again in the nick of time. Meanwhile, he tries to tell his mother that Harry continually asks about the $10,000 but she doesn't believe him.
John stubbornly refuses to tell Harry where it is stashed so Harry tries to get the information out of Pearl. Willa overhears him threaten the girl. "Tell me, you little wrench, or I'll tear your arm off!" he warns her. Finally, Willa knows. "It ain't in the river, is it, Harry"? she asks. The preacher smacks her for questioning him.
Knowing that Willa is aware that the money is still among her family and that this is the reason he came into their lives, Harry sees no choice but to kill her. He pulls out his switchblade and goes to work...
Icey and Walt hear the news as Harry tells it...that Willa has run off and abandoned him. He says he tried to "save" her but she had started drinking and he was unsuccessful. The couple are unaware that Willa's body is at the bottom of the river along with her old Model-T...her neck slit open from ear to ear.
Uncle Birdie makes the gruesome discovery while fishing. But the trauma of seeing the body makes him drink and he becomes too intoxicated to report it to the police. In addition, he believes people will think it was he who killed Willa.
He speaks to a photo of his late wife. "Oh, if you could've seen her, Bess. Down there in the deep place, with her hair wavin' soft and lazy like meadow grass under floodwater. And that slit in her throat...like she had an extra mouth."
John senses that with his mother gone, he and Pearl are in danger and he plans for them to run away. They hide in the basement but when Icey pays a visit, she coaxes them into coming out.
Harry begins to threaten the children and even shows them his knife. Pearl says she can't reveal the secret on account of John...and Harry calls her a "poor, silly disgusting wretch." In order to get him off his sister, John tells Harry the money is buried in the cellar under a stone in the floor.
When Harry finds out it's a lie, he threatens to cut John's throat. Pearl finally blurts out
that the money is hidden in her doll. Before Harry can take it, John knocks a shelf onto his head and the two kids make a run for it.
They lock Harry in the cellar and make their way to Uncle Birdie's place. But the old man is passed out.
John and Pearl then dash towards the river with Harry in tow...where they find a boat and manage to pull out just in the nick of time.
In a week, Icey and Walt will get a note from Harry - telling them he's taken the kids to his sister's farm. In actuality, the preacher man has killed a gypsy and stolen his horse...and he is now searching the countryside for John and Pearl.
Down the serene river the siblings go, until they come upon a barn where they rest for the night.
But when they hear Harry singing on his horse...they have to leave yet again. The kids fall asleep in the boat and the next morning, a kindly old woman named Rachel (Lillian Gish) discovers them.
Believing they're homeless, she takes them under her wing and cleans them off. She's got several children living with her that she's looking after. The oldest, Ruby (Gloria Castille), is at the age where she's interested in the opposite sex. One of the guys she meets is Harry, who finds out that John and Pearl are living at her house.
Rachel tells the children Biblical stories before bedtime. Strongly religious, she has come to take care of them because of the loss of her son. When Ruby tells her that a man has been asking about Pearl and John, Rachel is suspicious.
Harry shows up and tells her he's their father. Rachel calls for the children but when John says that Harry isn't his dad, she believes him right away. "And he ain't no preacher, neither," she says.
Harry tries to take the doll but John runs under the staircase. Harry goes after him with his knife but Rachel comes barreling out of the house with a shotgun and temporarily scares him off. "I'll be back...when it's dark," he says.
He does return and waits outside the home, singing the gospel while Rachel stays up all night with the shotgun by her side. Harry manages to get inside and Rachel shoots him. Screaming like a banshee, he runs into the barn for cover and Rachel calls the state troopers.
They arrive and try to arrest Harry for the murder of Willa Harper. Harry pulls out his knife and the troopers tackle him down. Seeing another father figure knocked to the ground by the authorities, John screams "don't!"
He takes Pearl's doll and breaks it over Harry's
back. The money goes flying everywhere and the boy passes out. Rachel carries him inside.
At the courthouse, Harry's former supporters and followers are out for blood. "Lynch him!" yells Icey. John refuses to identify the man who killed his mother and the town mob goes on a rampage, demanding justice.
Life soon returns to normal for Rachel and her brood. Christmas arrives and there are gifts for everyone. The good in the world has prevailed.
The Night of the Hunter is a simple, powerful allegory of good versus evil told in a really cool, expressionistic way...Charles Laughton's only 'poem' on film. Mitchum is simply perfect as the psychotic, menacing preacher.
Magical imagery mixes with horror...the image of Winters at the bottom of the river, her hair drifting serenely upward, the children floating down the river at night...Laughton really knew the power of silence and the intensity that could be created by underscoring the 'absence' of things...and the arrival of some of these elements becomes all the more terrifying.
The rabbit plays harmlessly on the groud, nearly silent, not a care in the world. The night owl leers bob-headed around in the dark, aware and particular. Swoosh. Death.
The studio didn't know what to do with The Night of the Hunter. Images of a villainous preacher who kills women and tries to murder two children...was a hard sell to say the least. The film ended up being relegated to the bottom half of a double bill with 'B' westerns!
It is one of the great injustices that Laughton (who died in 1962 of cancer) would never live long enough to see the acclaim his masterpiece would receive over the years.
Laughton did, however, get praise for his brilliant acting career, winning an Academy Award for 1934's The Private Life of Henry VIII and nominations for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
Lillian Gish, one of the few Silent stars to survive in talkies, lived until the ripe old age of 100. She died in 1993.
Robert Mitchum worked well into the 1980s and 90s, earning new fans (and million dollar paychecks) for the smash mini-series The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. He passed away in 1997 of lung cancer.
Surprisingly, the two children who played John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Ruce) did very little work onscreen besides their very effective turns in Night of the Hunter.
Mention should be made of the stunning, surreal quality of cinematographer Stanley Cortez's work and the gripping score courtesy of Walter Schumann.
Pulitzer Prize winning author James Agee received a credit for writing the screenplay - but according to Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester, Laughton hated the script and he rewrote most of it.
A television remake in 1991, starring Richard Chamberlain and Diana Scarwid, added nothing new nor did it diminish the impact of the original...which remains a timeless classic not to be missed.