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Night of the Hunter, The (1955, Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters)



As The Times put it, ‘Story and style coalesce into a unique fairy tale,’ in this mannerist wonder of chilling Freudian allegory – ‘the closest a director has come to capturing the hypnotic, compelling potency of the kind of nightmares we have when we are children’ (Sight & Sound).

The only directing effort from great actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter stars Robert Mitchum in one of cinema’s most memorable roles. With L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, Harry Powell is an impotent, knife-wielding sociopath – an itinerant preacher who finances a dream of building his own tabernacle by slaughtering wealthy widows throughout the Depression-hit Mid-West.

During a stint in prison, he hears about $10,000 that condemned bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves) managed to stash away before being arrested. When his sentence is up, Powell heads off to Ohio where he smarms his way into the heart and home of Harper’s wife, Willa (Shelley Winters). Not until they’re married does Harry discover that only Ben’s 10-year-old son John (Billy Chapin) knows where the loot’s hidden, and the boy’s not giving anything away, no matter how heavily Powell leans on him.

After the preacher has murdered their mother, John and his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) escape, but are stalked all the way by Powell. Eventually they’re offered sanctuary by golden-hearted old maid Rachel (Lillian Gish), who shoots the preacher and has him arrested. But at the subsequent trial, John refuses to identify Powell.

Together with Mitchum’s extraordinary performance, Laughton’s direction captures the menace of Grubb’s Southern Gothic tale quite brilliantly. Today the film is revered as ‘A monochrome masterpiece, pure cinematic alchemy and just about every other superlative that spells genius.’ (Empire) and Derek Malcolm picked it for his list of the 100 greatest films.

production details
USA / 93 minutes / 1955

Director: Charles Laughton
Writers: James Agee (from the novel by Davis Grubb),

Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell
Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
Billy Chapin as John Harper
Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper
James Gleason as Birdie Steptoe
Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl Harper
Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon
Don Beddoe as Walt Spoon
Gloria Castillo as Ruby
Peter Graves as Ben Harper