The Night of the Hunter follows the tale of the ill-fated children of a bank robber. After robbing a bank for $10,000 ($142,000+ in 2015) Ben Harper hides the money and persuades his children John and Pearl not to tell anyone, even their own mother, where he hid it. Ben is eventually captured and sent to prison. In prison he meets Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum),
a self-proclaimed preacher who cons widows out of their money before killing them. Unable to obtain the location of the $10,000 from Ben before he is executed, Reverend Powell goes after his widow Willa (Shelley Winters) in an attempt to get to the money. Harry eventually figures out that John and Pearl know where the money is and tries to get them to confess.
Failing this, Reverend Powell kills Willa in her sleep gaining custody of the children. Harry ties to force a confession out of the children again but the children escape and run away on a small row boat. They are eventually discovered by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish),
who has adopted several other abandoned children. Reverend Powell eventually shows up to reclaim the children in a final attempt at the money. Rachel however, doesn’t buy into it and runs Reverend Powell off the property with a shotgun. Later that night Reverend Powell begins singing his calling card hymn leaning not far from the house.
He is eventually accompanied by Rachel who is sitting up to guard the children. Reverend Powell manages to sneak into the house only to be discovered and wounded by a shot fired by Rachel. Reverend Powell is finally captured, tried and hanged for his crimes with John and Pearl finding a safe home with Rachel.
The Leaning scene is particularly powerful in this film as it shows the conflict between good, Rachel, and evil, Reverend Powell. The overt menace of Harry’s singing speaks volumes for his character as does Rachel’s accompaniment. This is only furthered as it highlights the extraordinary talents of both Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum. Mitchum especially shines in this film as his quiet but ominous portrayal of Reverend Harry Powell. Having seen what Harry is willing to do to obtain the money only adds to his already intimidating character. This also builds into Lillian Gish’s portrayal of the mother hen Rachel. In essence the Leaning scene is a beautifully executed battle of wills magnified by the poetic and soft nature of the song. Further illustrating this point is the follow up scene of an owl capturing a rabbit off screen.
While this is Charles Laughton’s only directed film; one could imagine what other great works he could have produced had he stuck to film. With some of the best performances from legendary actors and actresses to scenes so beautifully done that they would be remembered for years to come. The Night of The Hunter serves as a prototype for villain heavy thrillers as well as adds Reverend Harry Powell to the list of history’s greatest film villains.