Like a Greek tragedy, the narrative sets up a premise of salvation only after the innocent have been corrupted. In this case, the tale is seen entirely from the perspective of two fearful children; John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his much younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Seems their father, Ben (Peter Graves) has hidden a fortune he stole during an armed robbery in one of Pearl’s favourite dolls. Confiding his secret to John only, Ben is apprehended by the police. As he sits on death row, Ben recants his tale of theft to fellow inmate, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) – a sadist and a murderer who, upon being released from prison, masquerades as a preacher to get nearer to the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).
Presenting himself as a model citizen, Harry marries Willa after Ben is hanged, then brainwashes her into believing she is 'unclean' and therefore unworthy of his love, all the while baiting John and Pearl as to the whereabouts of their father's loot. Willa overhears these conversations and gradually begins to realize that Harry's intentions have not been honourable. Harry slits Willa's throat , then weighs down her body and dumps it in a nearby lake; spreading the rumour about town that she has run off with another man to divert suspicion from his crime.
John, fearful of what may come next, takes Pearl and the doll full of money. The two run off into the night, escaping Harry's clutches repeatedly before arriving at the home of curmudgeonly widow/social worker, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) whose farm is a refuge for orphans. Eventually, Harry picks up their trail and hunts John and Pearl down. But Rachel is not about to let anything happen.
She wounds Harry with her shotgun, sending for the police who apprehend Harry the next morning. He stands trial and is convicted for Willa's murder with John and Pearl having to endure a lengthy and nightmarish trial and its aftermath. The film closes with Rachel directly addressing the audience, declaring that 'children' represent mankind at its strongest - "they abide!"
Like a trip through the funhouse, The Night of the Hunter is a haunting cinematic excursion. Moreover, Laughton's direction and Stanley Cortez's stark cinematography make the film a stunning visual experience to behold. Laughton’s deeply unhinged vision of a child’s terror is conceived in almost storybook format. Yet, like a tale told by Grimm, the film consistently builds on a single premise; that evil is a constant in society that cannot be avoided, though arguably, may be overcome through blind faith and perseverance.
At the time of the premiere, The Night of the Hunter was ill received – perhaps because its unrelenting portrait of evil in real danger of overpowering goodness was at odds with what America wanted to believe about itself and take away from its collective movie-going experience. Regrettably, the film's failure resulted in Laughton never directing another feature. Today, The Night of the Hunter remains unnerving entertainment of the highest order – a testament to the film’s stylistic elements and, undoubtedly, Mitchum’s central, driven and unsympathetic performance.
Criterion's Blu-Ray easily bests prior DVD offerings from MGM. For one - the Criterion Blu-Ray frames the film's aspect ratio correctly at 1:66 anamorphic widescreen and not 1:33 full frame. The gray scale on the Blu-ray is much more subtly nuanced. Blacks are deeper, richer and more foreboding. Whites, regrettably, continue to look just a tad dirty gray rather than white. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine detail is more evident, though again, for a film of this vintage, not quite as refined as this reviewer had hoped. Film grain is more obvious but also much more natural looking.
Criterion's monaural soundtrack is well balanced and nicely cleaned up. Where the Criterion excels is in its extra features. Not only do we get an informative audio commentary, but there's also a newly produced featurette on the making of the film as well as the nearly 2 1/2 hr. documentary, 'Charles Laughton Directs' (housed on a separate disc) that contains an overwhelming treasure trove of stills, on set photography and other rare outtakes. There's also a critique of that documentary provided by two noted film historians and the film's theatrical trailer to absorb. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)