Widely hailed as one of Hollywood’s great thrillers, “Night of the Hunter” is another film that just isn’t going to be for everyone. Not a big fan of film noir myself, I found it lacking in several respects, dated in others and far-fetched in still a few more. That said, Robert Mitchum makes the role of Harry Powell his and the dark story and good performances all around make this one worth watching.
Traveling the countryside as a male black widow of sorts, “preacher” Powell charms old widows and just about anybody else who crosses his path. During a brief stint in jail, he learns that his cellmate has stashed the loot from bank robbery on his property. Once released – and after his cellmate is executed – Powell sets out to find the loot. First, he enraptures the new widow (Shelley Winters), subverting and then eliminating her, leaving only two children in his way, until they find their way to Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish) and her de facto orphanage.
Mitchum is dark and sells it well – although sometimes a bit over the top. Shelley Winters turns in a great performance, first as a grief and guilt-stricken widow and then as a woman who – under the sway of Mitchum’s Preacher Powell – thinks she can find redemption. Gish’s showdown with Mitchum is one of those expressionistic moments in cinema that proves that films really can be art. The cinematography is exceptional and the use of shadow stands out even in the confines of a genre known for its use of shadow: Mitchum’s first appearance to the children – silhouetted larger than life across their room – is the sort of thing that haunts you.
At its worst, the film is a bit long and Mitchum hams it up a little much for the character – as if even he were put off at times at how deplorable he was. At its best, it’s high art. Either way, it’s definitely worth watching.