A shady character with ulterior motives is often a staple of film noir, and few are as malicious as preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). After he learns of the whereabouts of a large sum of money from his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) — a man condemned to be executed — Powell charms his way into the life of his unsuspecting widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Masquerading as a do-gooder, Powell is the last person anybody would suspect. However, he harbors disturbing, misogynistic views about women, and uses this and his religious piety to justify his deeds.
The extent of Powell’s evil is particularly evident in the way he treats Willa’s children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) — who hold the secret of where the money is. While it is common to see women emotionally manipulated by a man with ill intentions, it is less common to see children involved in the schemes, and Powell’s relentless pursuit to find them gives the film an even darker edge.
As the first and only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, “The Night of the Hunter” was a critical and commercial flop (via Filmsite). However, modern reappraisal has recognized the film as a chilling and misunderstood movie, with Roger Ebert calling it, “one of the greatest of all American films.” Many film noir movies are heavily influenced by German expressionism, with the use of bizarre shadows, odd angles, and the incorporation of surrealism and distortion (via ACMI). “The Night of the Hunter” uses this to its advantage, walking the finest of lines between the real world, and a twisted fairy tale.