Robert Mitchum was a master at presenting understated menace.
In The Night of the Hunter the menace is less understated than buzzing like an electric charge. It is there throughout the film, surrounding murderous faux preacher Harry Powell like a tangible aura.
It was characters that slipped outside type that gave Mitchum his best film work. And there weren’t many. The cuckolded Irish schoolmaster in Ryan’s Daughter was one. The raving religious maniac in The Night of the Hunter was another.
The power of Mitchum’s performance comes via his capacity for unpalatable truth. Powell is a conman and killer who wears the garb of a minister. But lurking beneath the surface is his true self. Mitchum cares not to mask it, and it is the reaction of those not taken in by his guise – children and an old woman played by Lillian Gish – that drives the horror.
Charles Laughton’s only film as director is a magnificent slice of 50s southern gothic Grand Guignol with a barnstorming performance from Mitchum as the single-minded killer with his eye on locating $10,000 of stolen money.
The whereabouts of the cash, stolen by fellow con Peter Graves, is known to his children. Thus Mitchum fetches up at the family home to woo his dead pal’s widow and get his hands on the lolly.
The Night of the Hunter is imbued with a sense of creeping corruption. Graves’ widow Shelley Winters recognises it, as do her son and daughter. But it is Gish as their all-seeing elderly protector who faces off with Powell in one of the film’s strongest scenes.
Famously the homosexual Laughton and the macho Mitchum did not get along but their off-screen tension helps layer the film with a multitude of unsettling mood swings.
This is a film enveloped in the essence of pure evil. Laughton fought for it. Mitchum, his hands tattooed with “love” and “hate”, delivered it.