Vintage Movies: “The Night Of The Hunter”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 500 titles—from the silent era through the ’90s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.


The Night Of The Hunter (1955, 93 minutes)

Stacked up against Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis’ womanizing preacher from an expose written 30 years earlier, novelist Davis Grubb makes Rev. Harry Powell seem like the devil incarnate in The Night Of The Hunter. It’s the big-screen role of a lifetime for Robert Mitchum, usually known for playing down-on-their-luck petty criminals. He’s brilliant as a self-anointed, scripture-spouting fundamentalist. Only the word “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles hints at his double-life as a serial-killer.

With screaming sirens hot on his tail, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) takes a sharp turn into the dusty driveway of his country home and leaps from a battered Model-T, still carrying the pistol he’s just used in a bank robbery where two people have been gunned down. “You’re bleeding, Daddy!” shouts his young son Johnny (Billy Chapin), playing with his little sister Pearl in the front yard.

“We’ve gotta hide this money before they get to me!” gasps Ben, all but oblivious of his kids. “Close to 10 thousand dollars. But where? In the smokehouse? No, that’s the first place they’d look! In the grape arbor, under the bricks? No, no!” Like a man grasping at floating planks in a swollen river, he notices Pearl, still playing with her lumpy rag doll in the sunshine. He makes his son swear an oath that he will never tell the police where the money was hidden and that the cash will one day be his. “Don’t even tell your mother. You’ve got sense, she hasn’t.”

Two cars carrying five uniformed policemen screech to a halt at Harper’s place with weapons drawn. After making Ben drop his pistol, they throw him to the ground and handcuff him. Just as his wife, Willa (Shelley Winters, certainly Hollywood’s best female victim, ever) arrives home from grocery shopping, the police vehicle with her husband inside, manacled like a rabid animal, is already departing the premises.

Just released from a 40-day prison sentence for being in possession of a stolen automobile, Rev. Powell is rolling through the shade tree-lined West Virginia outback in an open vehicle, speaking earnestly to his creator in a Southern drawl about the worthiness of his humble endeavors. “Well now, what’s it to be, Lord, another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. You say the word, and I’m on my way,” he prays, tipping his hat heavenward. “A widow with a little wad of bills laid away in her sugar bowl.” As he spots the house described to him by his recently executed cellmate, Powell offers up a final supplication to continue his master’s work. “Lord, I am tired, not that I’m tired of the killings. Your good book is full of killings,” he prays as he rattles into the same front yard where his bunkmate was captured earlier that same year.