"Night of the Hunter" without Charles Laughton's finesse
This is one of the more disappointing "S of S" episodes I have caught in syndication. It is slow-moving and dull and the cast and crew are not up to the level of its obvious source material, the 1955 Gothic-expressionist big-screen thriller "The Night of the Hunter," which was the only major film directed by the distinguished British actor Charles Laughton.
For those unfamiliar with the film, I'll summarize: in Depression-era (1930s) West Virginia, phony self-appointed preacher Harry Powell (based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers, who preyed on and then killed rich widows for their money; portrayed by Robert Mitchum in one of his best performances) does prison time for car theft; his cell mate is condemned bank robber/murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves of "Mission: Impossible" fame) who hid his ill- gotten gains before his arrest, trial, conviction, and sentencing to be hanged, and left the secret with his young children. When Powell is released from prison, he tracks down and woos Harper's clueless widow Willa (Shelley Winters), hoping to kill her and her young children and live on the loot. He cons Willa and the local townspeople with his preacher/man-of-God act. His problem: only the children know where the money is, and they're not telling; they're not taken in by his pretense. I won't spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it by revealing any more.
This episode of "S of S" is "Night of the Hunter" updated to present-day (i.e., 1970s) San Francisco. Again, there are two cons sharing a cell, ill-gotten money, a man pretending to be something he's not, a clueless and credulous widow who marries the con artist and of course ends up dead, and her children, who, like the kids in "Night of the Hunter," suspect that their supposedly virtuous stepfather is not kosher; there is a long chase involving the orphan children's river-running escape, pursued by the bad guy. There are some minor changes: in this version the older, more suspicious child is the girl and the younger, more trusting child (whom the older one protects) is the boy- it is the reverse in "Night of the Hunter"; the con artist is a fake doctor rather than a fake preacher; the clothes and situations are urban 1970s rather than rural 1930s. And of course there are major differences. The plot moves slowly, even for an hour-long episode, the acting is adequate rather than compelling (Mitchum is irresistible playing one of the most evil guys in American cinematic history; Peter Haskell simply looks like another run-of-the-mill 1970s TV acting journeyman as the heavy here). Overall, not bad, but derivative in an uncreative way and far from one of the best "S and S" episodes.
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