Written by James Agee and Charles Laughton
Based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Directed by Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum
Sometimes I just don't get it. In Roger Ebert's Great Movies review of The Night of the Hunter (in which he calls this "one of the greatest of all American films") he says
It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up as well after four decades as I expect ``The Silence of the Lambs'' to do many years from now.
Except that Hannibal Lecter was a terrifying presence because he used his intelligence and merciless ferocity to outwit and defeat armies of trained professionals whose reputations and even lives depended on keeping him in chains. To use a very recent example of a great movie villain, Heath Ledger's Joker is menacing because he conceals his genius for preparedness in his menace with outward beliefs in chaos and meaninglessness. (Although the Joker gets a nice boost from his screenwriters, who give him capabilities that are implausible even within the comic-book universe.) But Robert Mitchum's demented preacher Harry Powell? He waltzes his way through the con game of his life because he's charming idiot rubes who can't see through the centimeter-thick preacher act to the killer underneath -- the moment he tries the performance on a person with even a modicum of intelligence, he ends up with a bullet in his shoulder. Earlier in the film, he can't outrun a pair of children dragging a doll, and falls for the most blatant of ruses even when he knows he shouldn't. He's more ridiculous than menacing.
No, I think The Night of the Hunter is a mediocre film that comes wrapped in the trappings of greatness. A husband and father steals ten grand from a bank and kills two people in the process -- he hides the money in his little girl's doll and swears the children to secrecy so they can have the money when they grow up. He is sentenced to death row, where he runs into Powell, serving thirty days on some minor charge. Powell seeks to convince the bank robber to tell him where he keeps the money, but he takes the secret to the grave. So Powell decides to pay the sleepy little town a visit. The idea of a murderer and con-man using the trappings of religion to hoodwink his victims is a good one, and the way he gets under the defenses of the townpeople is something of a subversive attack on the conservative religious values of those people. Soon Powell has married the bank robber's widow Willa (Shelley Winters), and what happens between the two on the night of their honeymoon is perhaps the highlight of the film, an incredibly creepy sequence that belongs in a better movie.
Once Powell has ingratiated himself into the family and serves as the head of the household, it seems that he has the power to find the money for himself, right? Certainly he should now be able to search with impunity, but instead he finds himself stymied by the twelve-year-old son of the bank robber, for the impudent little kid won't tell him where the money is. When he finds that his new wife has overheared him roughly questioning the children, he slices her with a switchblade and makes it look like she's run off in an old Model T. The shots of Willa in the Model T at the bottom of the river are surreal and haunting, and again belong in a better movie than this.
The body is discovered by an old alcoholic who fishes nearby and is a friend to the boy, but he can't go to the cops because he believes that the police will believe that he committed the crime. In his despair he becomes soused just when he's needed most, as the children come screaming to him for help when he is passed out on the floor. No matter, for the old man has built a skiff for the boy, and the children take off down the river in a sequence that belongs more in a boy's adventure novel than a thriller. At the end of the river they are taken in as orphans by Rachel (aging silent film star Lillian Gish, who is perfect in the role despite the drastic tonal shift). It is with Rachel that they find protection from Powell, and it is by her hands that he finds himself in the arms of the law. The last minutes of this film serve as a kind of denouement that would fit more in line with a sitcom of the fifties than a serious motion picture -- Gish even finds herself speaking directly to the camera and espousing such words of wisdom as "children endure."
I don't know. I read over what I've written above and it seems better than I found it. There are sequences of amazing beauty and sequences of astonishing evil, but they are linked together in a plot that seems set on the dumbest possible level. Ebert calls the film "expressionist," which I guess means that it doesn't have to follow any kind of logic, but that feels like a bit of a cop-out here. Maybe I just can't buy into the reality of the picture enough, or can't suspend disbelief in just the right way. It just doesn't work for me.
Oh, well. If we all agreed on the quality of movies what would the point of having more than one critical eye? You'll probably like this one more than I did.