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A private eye escapes his past to run a gas station in a small town, but his past catches up with him. Now he must return to the big city world of danger, corruption, double crosses and duplicitous dames.
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It's the Great Depression. In the process of robbing a bank of $10,000, Ben Harper kills two people. Before he is captured, he is able to convince his adolescent son John and his daughter Pearl not to tell anyone, including their mother Willa, 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, swindling lonely women, primarily rich widows, of their money before he kills them. Harry does whatever he can, unsuccessfully, to find out the location of the $10,000 from Ben. After Ben's execution, Harry decides that Willa will be his next mark, figuring that someone in the family knows where the money is hidden. Despite vowing not to remarry, Willa ends up being easy prey for Harry's outward ... Written by
Robert Mitchum's autobiography contains many spurious accounts of the making of the film; in one of them, Charles Laughton is said to have had no great love for children, and so despised directing them in this film that Robert Mitchum found himself directing the children in several scenes. In reality, Laughton obsessed over every facet of his first feature, including getting the performances of every actor (even the children) right; this would lead to him dismissing one actor, in particular, after all of his scenes had already been shot and starting again with another in the part. See more »
(at around 1h 22 mins) After Harry Powell disappears from in front of Ms. Cooper's yard, a barn owl swoops down on a rabbit. We can hear the owl's wings flap even though barn owls make no noise when they fly. See more »
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.
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I was lucky enough to see this in a cinema with a restored print. I had previously caught a snatch of it while channel surfing cable TV, and saw enough in about 30 seconds to realise that this was worth watching through if I got the chance.
I could barely speak at the end of the film. Pauline Kael called it one of the scariest movies ever made, and she was absolutely right. Robert Mitchum becomes the embodiment of evil, and his pursuit of the children is so relentless, and so menacing, that it becomes impossible to believe that they can escape. The images are brilliant; there's a depth to black and white that colour somehow lacks, and it is used superbly here to create a sense of brooding terror.
I didn't mind the homily at the end. Like everything else in the film, it is done with utter conviction, and this makes it work. Charles Laughton saw it as the indispensable conclusion to the film, and the strength of his belief makes it indispensable.
The images are so much part of the film that it must lose a great deal on the small screen, although my minimal exposure to it in that environment showed that it was still well worth watching, but if you get a chance to see it in a cinema, jump at it.
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