Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms."
If there ever was a movie begging for prompt dissection and thesisization, it's The Night of the Hunter (1955). It straddles the absurd and the chilling, like it's riding a rabid horse of religious allegory straight into the jungle of the human psyche.
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a deranged fire-and-brimstone preacher who insinuates himself into a condemned man's family to steal a stash of cash. Only the man's children know where the cash is hidden. Powell marries the man's wife (Shelley Winters) after brainwashing her with his crypto-religio-chauvinist head games, then torments and stalks the children looking for the loot's location. The children run away, but he follows, always just out of sight, calmly singing a hymn, his shadow advancing.
Sounds like a grand time, right? Well, it kind of is. It's intentionally a very funny movie. Some of the dialogue is hilarious, like when Powell covers for himself after killing his new wife by saying she ran away in the night:
Woman: "What could have possessed her to do such a thing?!" Powell: "Satan."
The way Mitchum says it is great -- quick, with a shrug. "Satan, obviously." But for every funny moment, there is a moment of terror. Like when the two children run into the basement to hide from Powell, who then stands at the top of the dark stairway, coiled like a snake.
Powell: "I can hear you whisperin' children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience children. I'm coming to find you now."
Yikes. Powell is one of the great movie villains, bested only by John Huston's horrifying Noah Cross in Chinatown. Night of the Hunter is black and white, very dark, with many shadows and warped sets and expressionistic composition. It's very biblical too; the end sequence is a war of Bible-quoting between Powell and a scrappy matron (silent film star Lillian Gish) who protects the children. It's like archangel versus devil, and there seems to be something cosmic at stake -- children, innocence, the future.
You don't hear much about this film--it was a critical and commercial flop and has never secured its place on top-10 lists--but it has colored modern works. Spike Lee used Mitchum's right hand/left hand speech (the story of love and hate) in Do the Right Thing. Christopher Durang lifted the last line ("They abide, and they endure") for his play Baby with the Bathwater. You can see aspects of Night of the Hunter in Polanski and Lynch and any good horror movie.
This is the only film the actor Charles Laughton directed, and the rumor is that he completely re-wrote James Agee's script. So what we see is a complete Laughton invention with a Mitchum twist. What in the world was on the minds of these two men?