It is a difficult film to categorise, part noir, part thriller, part child's nightmare fairy story and it is a genuinely frightening movie. It tells a tale, from the point of view of children, of greed, corruption and murder in Depression-era small town America. The film is based on the 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, and was adapted for the screen by James Agee and an uncredited Laughton.
Unsurprisingly for such an unusual and imaginative film, it was not well received on first release and was generally misunderstood. The black and white photography at a time when color was all the rage did not help it at the box-office. Nor did the subject matter - violence, repressed sexuality and a sadistic Preacher as leading man. However, during the intervening years it has markedly increased in stature and is now regarded as a masterpiece. It has influenced a later generation of directors such as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. The movie was released by United Artists at a time when the studio acted primarily as banker, not a true studio.
On AFI's list of 100 Years... 100 Thrills the movie ranked number 34. Robert Mitchum's character, the Reverend Harry Powell, was ranked at number 29 in their list of Greatest Villains. In 1992, it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.
The film tells the tale of the hunting of two children by one of Hollywood's most memorable villains. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a menacing, demonic figure who uses pseudo-religious words and actions but who is a perverted murderer on a personal crusade to rid the world of sexual undesirables. He has the words 'LOVE' and 'HATE' tattooed on his knuckles and he illustrates the conflict between these forces by arm wrestling with himself.
After murdering the children's mother (Shelley Winters) he relentlessly pursues the children along the river until they are taken in by a knd old lady, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who becomes a representation of Love in contrast to Mitchum's Hate figure. The force of Evil is finally defeated in a remarkable finale only after Mitchum and Gish sing a hymn together but with different words.
There is no doubt that Charles Laughton, in his only venture into directing, created a masterpiece of horror. It was unique, brilliant and ahead of its time.
Main CastRobert Mitchum ... Harry Powell
Shelley Winters ... Willa Harper
Lillian Gish ... Rachel Cooper
Billy Chapin ... John Harper
Sally Jane Bruce ... Pearl Harper
James Gleason ... Birdie Steptoe
Evelyn Varden ... Icey Spoon
Peter Graves ... Ben Harper
Don Beddoe ... Walt Spoon
Gloria Castillo ... Ruby
CreditsDirector ... Charles Laughton
Producer ... Paul Gregory
Distribution Company ... United Artists
Written by ... Davis Grubb (novel), James Agee, Charles Laughton
Music ... Walter Schumann
Cinematography ... Stanley Cortez
Format ... B & W Release date ... September 29, 1955
Running time ... 93 min.
Academy AwardsNo Wins