In Depression-era America, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank and kills in the process. With the police hot on his trail, he gives his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), the loot to hide for him and is taken off to jail. He shares his cell with Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who has been caught for stealing a car. But Powell has done much worse in his life, and he tries to cajole Ben into telling him where the money is; when Ben is executed, Powell tracks down his widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and romances her while charming the townsfolk. Only John knows that Powell is after the money, and will stop at nothing to get it.
Of all the directors who made only one film and nothing else, it's possibly saddest that Charles Laughton never went onto direct anything other than The Night of the Hunter. On the other hand, it gives the film an added mystique, making you contemplate if he could work wonders here, what other gems could he have come up with given the chance? Written by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb (although legend has it that Laughton rewrote the script), this film is a true original, with its luminous photography by Stanley Cortez, righteous morality and richly defined characters.
The most memorable of those characters is Powell, a deadly psychopath who has unshakeable faith that God is on his side. Is he a real preacher? He certainly knows his Bible, and has the letters L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles so that he can tell an invented parable of the duality of man, with left hand wrestling right. He also carries a switchblade, his "sword", that he uses to murder his victims. Nowhere is his twisted sense of sin more apparent than at the start, where he visits a burlesque house and his blade tears through his pocket, both repelled by and attracted to the stripper before him, and wishing to destroy her for bringing out those feelings in him.
The film has the feel of a parable itself, with its wolf in sheep's clothing fooling everyone except John, who has hidden the money in Pearl's rag doll. Powell marries Willa, turning her into a wide-eyed religious penitent when he makes it clear she disgusts him, but it's not long before he's telling people Willa has run off. Where is she? In an incredible scene, one of many, we see her seated in her car on the river bed with her throat cut from ear to ear, her hair flowing in the current. Now John and Pearl have to escape.
As the song over the opening credits points out, this is like watching a dream - or a child's nightmare. The one where your father is replaced by an evil impostor, and the one where you are chased by a seemingly unstoppable monster. John and Pearl's flight from danger in a rowing boat down the river is beautifully composed, and the overwhelming menace never quite cancels out the exquisiteness of the images. To be honest, once the children find their refuge with Lillian Gish's widow, I think the story loses some of its power, because Powell is no match for a truly virtuous woman and the growing resilience of the children. But The Night of the Hunter deserves its classic status - there's nothing exactly like it in tone or look, and Mitchum is simply brilliant. Music by Walter Schumann.