In the opening moments of Charles Laughton’s meandering parable of good versus evil, we are introduced to a world of unabated desires desperately in need of self-control. Self-appointed preacher—and serial killer—Harry Powell (played by the dizzyingly handsome Robert Mitchum) is on the run after committing a murder and stops to take in a burlesque show. The preacher quickly becomes aroused, and reacts violently—first by clenching his fist (emblazoned with “HATE”; his other hand says “LOVE”) but then by forcefully opening his switchblade, which rips through his jacket and protrudes into the air. He is undoubtedly popping a boner here (an early draft had the knife rip through Powell’s pants), and Powell, disgusted by his sexual urges, reroutes that energy into deception and murder over the next 90 minutes or so.
From there, “The Night of the Hunter” becomes a perverse Southern Gothic fairy tale that details the struggle of innocent children in an unforgiving world inhabited by people like Powell. We meet John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), simple-minded country children whose father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has killed two men while robbing a bank. Harper is caught for his crime, but hides the money beforehand, only revealing its location to John and Pearl. While imprisoned, he shares a cell with Powell who, once free, sets about marrying the children’s mother Willa (a doe-eyed Shelly Winters) in an attempt to procure the location of the cash. After Powell fails to earn the children’s obedience, he kills the widow Harper, and the children flee downriver on their father’s skiff, eventually landing at Miz Cooper’s (Lillian Gish), a haven for unfortunate and abandoned children.
The film is notable for its distinctive expressionist lighting and dreamlike atmosphere, which director Laughton pushes to extremes: Towering, angular shadows dwarf the small children and engulf their world in darkness. And images such as the interior of Willa Harper’s American Gothic bedroom (with a ceiling whose angles recall knife points and foreshadow the return of Powell’s switchblade), or the lingering shot that follows of her body, sunken underwater in her Model T, hair drifting among the reeds, carry an idyllic stillness that would be right at home in a children’s storybook of nightmares.
There are plenty of film-buff reasons to see a film like “The Night of the Hunter,” but perhaps the best reason to watch is also the simplest: It’s a film that offers the hope that evil does not always win. Describing the plight that the children face, and the grace and strength with which they greet it, Miz Cooper says, “The wind blows and the rains are cold. Yet they abide . . . they abide and they endure.” The film’s neatly wrapped ending may have an idyllic resolution, but it is inspiring if naive and nonetheless helps us endure.