The following is an excerpt from Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay on "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), which opens today at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago with an archival print to mark its 50th anniversary. Read the full review here.
Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter'' (1955) is one of the greatest of all American films, but has never received the attention it deserves because of its lack of the proper trappings. Many "great movies'' are by great directors, but Laughton directed only this one film, which was a critical and commercial failure long overshadowed by his acting career.
Many great movies use actors who come draped in respectability and prestige, but Robert Mitchum has always been a raffish outsider. And many great movies are realistic, but "The Night of the Hunter'' (1955) is an expressionistic oddity, telling its chilling story through visual fantasy.
What a compelling, frightening and beautiful film it is! And how well it has survived its period. Many films from the mid-1950s, even the good ones, seem somewhat dated now, but by setting his story in an invented movie world outside conventional realism, Laughton gave it a timelessness.
Everybody knows the Mitchum character, the sinister "Reverend'' Harry Powell. Even those who haven't seen the movie have heard about the knuckles of his hands, and how one has the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on them, and the other the letters L-O-V-E. Many movie lovers know by heart the Reverend's explanation to the wide-eyed boy ("Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand/left hand?'')
The story, somewhat rearranged: In prison, Harry Powell discovers the secret of a condemned man, who has hidden $10,000 somewhere around his house. After being released from prison, Powell seeks out the man's widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), and their two children, John and the owl-faced Pearl. They know where the money is, but don't trust the "preacher.''
But their mother buys his con game and marries him, leading to a tortured wedding night inside a high-gabled bedroom that looks a cross between a chapel and a crypt.
Robert Mitchum is one of the great icons of the second half-century of cinema. He is uncannily right for the role, with his long face, his gravel voice and the silky tones of a snake-oil salesman. And Winters, all jitters and repressed sexual hysteria, is somehow convincing as she falls so prematurely into, and out of, his arms.
The supporting actors, including the great Lillian Gish and James Gleason, are like a chattering gallery of Norman Rockwell archetypes, their lives centered on bake sales, soda fountains and gossip. The children, especially the little girl, look more odd than lovable, which helps the film move away from realism and into stylized nightmare.
Charles Laughton showed here that he had an original eye, and a taste for material that stretched the conventions of the movies. For his first film, Laughton made a film like no other before or since, and with such confidence it seemed to draw on a lifetime of work. Critics were baffled by it, and the public rejected it.
But nobody who has seen "The Night of the Hunter" has forgotten it, or Mitchum's voice, as it coils down those basement stairs: "Chillll . . . dren?"