"The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, BUT ABOVE ALL… THE SUSPENSE!"
With a tagline like that it’s hard to imagine that this film wasn’t a commercial success upon it’s release in 1955. Maybe if they’d mentioned how godawful creepy it was people would’ve better know what to expect.
The Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton’s (Mutiny on the Bounty, Spartacus) only tun in the directors chair, screens this Monday at the Harvard Film Archive and if you’re in the mood for a creepy, stylish, intelligent, thriller this is a mighty fine candidate to fill that void.
The plot is fantastic. Ben Harper (Peter Graves) kills two people during a bank robbery and makes off with ten thousand dollars. As he’s about to be nabbed by the cops, he hides the money and makes his daughter Pearl and son John promise to keep the location of the money a secret. In prison and awaiting the hangman’s noose, Ben is paired with Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) as a cellmate. The preacher, who’s in for a month stretch for stealing a car, is a real piece of work. He makes his living marrying rich widows, offing them and taking off with their loot. He’s also fond of quoting scripture in the creepiest of manners, carries a switchblade that he has no compulsions against using and has LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles. As you would expect, while he’s locked up the preacher tries unsuccessfully to get Ben to reveal the location of the money. Not being one to give up so easily, as soon as he’s released he makes a beeline for the Harper home. There he does what he does best, namely, charming the widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and winning her hand in marriage. All with the intention of getting at the ten thousand dollars, of course. From that point forward, his ruthless ways begin to slowly materialize and things look bleaker and bleaker for anyone standing in the way of his goal. This is especially true for the two young ones who hold the key to the location of the money.
This is an excellent film, well acted, beautifully photographed by Stanley Cortez (who also shot Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons), briskly paced and intelligent. Mitchum’s performance alone is worth the price of admission as he brings to life this most evil of characters with equal parts charm and venom. Lillian Gish also comes through wonderfully as the Preacher’s foil in this eventual battle between good and evil.
Originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in July 2000.