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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.
***SPOILERS*** It's when this convict as well as smooth operator, with
the ladies, Jame's Cooper, Peter Haskell, found out that his cell mate
Calvin Todd in San Quentin prison had hidden some $220,000.00 from a
bank heist that he not only murdered him faking his death, with drugs,
as a massive heart but later planned to get to his old lady Betty,
Patricia Smith, when he gets paroled. That in order to find out where
her late husband hid the cash. Making believe that he's a kind and
lovable country doctor named William Dunson Cooper romances Betty who
falls madly in love with him. It's after Betty reveals where the cash
was hidden by her late husband Cooper did what was natural for him, the
murderous swine, and bashed her skull in making it look like she fell
in the bathtub and ended up drowning!
As things were later to turn out for Dunson his act as a country doctor and grieving husband or soon to be husband fell apart when SFPD Inspector Steve Keller, Michael Douglas, check out his background and realized he was not a doctor but an ex convict who was his late so to be wife Betty Todd's late husband's, Calvin Todd, cell mate in the big house. And even more disturbing for Dunson he very probably used drugs from the prison infirmary in murdering him.
***SPOILERS*** It's Betty's ten year old daughter Julie, Kim Richards, who realized what a fake this Doctor Dunson was and with her brother Bobby, Steve Manley, made Dunson's attempt to retrieve the stolen cash a lot harder then he thought it would have been. It was Inspector Keller and his bulb nosed partner Let. Mike Stone, Karl Malden, who came to both Julie & Bobby's rescue when by then a crazed and out of control James Cooper aka Dr. William Dunson tried to murder then if they didn't revile to him when the stolen cash was. In the end Cooper/Dunson paid for his crimes, that by then included at least three murders, in more ways then on. Not only did he end up back behind bars and possibly facing the San Quentin gas chamber but his new suit of clothes was completely destroyed in him jumping in the river to keep both Julie & Bobby from escaping from his clutches by boat with the cops lead by Det. Stone & Inspector Keller not that far behind who eventually apprehended him.
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