He travels the Ohio River preaching his own brand of the gospel, but the Reverend Harry Powell is a snake who insinuates himself in the lives of others, the desperate and the needy who wish to hear and believe his words, who pray for salvation and deliverance from the harsh misery of depression era America where children go hungry and crime goes unpunished: he does not fool them so much as they fool themselves.
Released from prison where his cellmate was Ben Harper, executed for the robbery of $10,000, still missing, Powell arrives at Cresap’s Point where he introduces himself to Harper’s widow Willa as the prison chaplain who ministered to her husband. Barely making ends meet to support her two children, young Pearl welcomes this surrogate father figure, Powell making her his favourite, while John is older and more hesitant, charged by his father before his arrest to keep the family and their secrets safe.
Based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter was optioned by the actor and stage director Charles Laughton with a view to starring himself but was unable to secure funding; instead, Laughton directed, the only motion picture to carry his name, and performed a significant rewrite of the script credited to James Agee, with film noir antihero Robert Mitchum taking the lead as the sinister Powell.
Convinced of his righteousness, dedicated to his task and judging those who stand in his way with a holy wrath, among the helpless sheep led to the slaughter is Shelley Winters as Willa, transfixed by her saviour who carries a switchblade and who will send her to a watery grave even as her orphaned children flee by riverboat under enchanted stars to the safety of the humble homestead of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), bruised and unsentimental but unstinting in her forgiveness and charity.
Presented in a new transfer on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection which showcases the juxtapositions of beauty and death, the darkness of some characters and the glowing purity of others, The Night of the Hunter suffered on original release in 1955 with accusations that it was “objectionable” and that it “degrades marriage” resulting in a blanket ban in some cities, making distribution difficult, though Grubb’s sketches which Laughton used as storyboards indicate just how explicit and extreme the production could have been had the times permitted.
With commentaries, documentaries and a re-enactment of a cut scene performed on The Ed Sullivan Show by Winters and Peter Graves, Criterion have assembled an impressive array of supporting features, with Laughton’s biographer Simon Callow providing insight into the veteran actor who never directed again following the perceived failure of the project to which he gave so much, The Night of the Hunter only finally recognised as a classic when it was entered in the National Film Registry in 1992, thirty years after Laughton’s death.
Night of the Hunter is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now