It's the Great Depression. In the process of robbing a bank of $10,000, the robbery because he is unable to provide for his family, Ben Harper kills two people. Before he is captured, he is able to convince his adolescent son John and his infant daughter Pearl not to tell anyone, including their mother Willa, who Ben believes is too idealistic, of where he hid the money, namely in Pearl's favorite toy, a doll that she carries everywhere with her. Ben, who is captured, tried and convicted, is sentenced to death. But before he is executed, Ben is in the state penitentiary with a cell mate, a man by the name of Harry Powell, a self-professed man of the cloth, who is really a con man and murderer, he who swindles lonely women, primarily rich widows, of their money before he kills them. The authorities are unaware of these crimes, Harry who is incarcerated on a thirty day sentence for car theft. Harry does whatever he can, unsuccessfully, to find out the location of the $10,000 from Ben. ... Written by
It's a shame Charle Laughton, the distinguished actor, didn't direct more films. As he clearly indicates with "The Night of the Hunter", he had a rare gift for guiding a production into achieving greatness. This film, which didn't receive the attention it got when it was released, has turned out to be something discerning movie fans saw from the start, a classic.
Charles Laughton was basically a man of the theater, then came the movies, but he was at heart someone who was equally at ease working on the stage, or performing in front of a camera. Mr. Laughton undertook to direct this screen play written by another distinguished American writer and critic, James Agee, based on the David Grubb's novel.
The result is a magnificent film about to what extreme a man will go in order to steal from two young and innocent children something their father had left for them in trust. The evil character of Harry Powell, a charlatan preacher taking advantage of poor and unsophisticated country folk, is one of the best creations in the novel. Harry Powell doesn't care what he must do to get his hands in the money. He marries the children's mother, a widow who was hoping for some happiness in her life, only as part of his overall scheme of things.
The film is a poetic account of the story with great emphasis on the kindness the children receive at the end from Rachel Cooper, a woman with a heart of gold who took John and Pearl into her home when they needed it.
Robert Mitchum is the evil Harry Powell. It's without a doubt, one of Mr. Mitchum's best screen work. As guided by the director, the actor gives a performance that still surprises whoever watches the film for the first time. Shelley Winters plays Willa, the widow who can't sense the danger connected to the man she marries. Lillian Gish is another luminous presence in the film because she projects no-nonsense kindness and sweetness toward the children she takes into her home.
The film also is enhanced by the brilliant black and white cinematography by Stanley Carter. The film still shows a pristine look fifty years after it was released. Also, the musical score of Walter Shumann adds another layer in the film's texture.
"The Night of the Hunter" is ultimately a work of art that moves the viewer because of the tremendous work its director, Charles Laughton, gave to the movie.
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