Harry Powers was born in the Netherlands but made his way to America in 1910 before settling in West Virginia in 1926. A year later, he met and married farm and feed store owner Luella Strother through a lonely hearts ad. But he didn’t stop running those ads, as he got ten to twenty replies to his lovelorn classified ads a day.
Police would later discover the bodies of several people who replied to his ads, like Asta Eicher, her three children and Dorothy Lemke. A mob tried to kill him and had to be dispensed with fire hoses and tear gas. After a trial so large that it needed to be held in an opera house to contain all the spectators, he was hung. His story inspired both the book and the movie The Night of the Hunter.
In 1930’s West Virginia. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, who is the only person who really could have played this role) is fleeing the scene of his latest murder. He’s a self-anointed man of the cloth who preaches along the dirt roads and small towns, a man who is both attracted to and hateful toward women. On his right hand is the word LOVE and HATE on the left, symbols for his ready-made sermons.
“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 of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other. Now watch ’em! Old brother left hand, left hand he’s a fighting, and it looks like love’s a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love’s a winning! Yessirree! It’s love that’s won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!”
Finally, in one small town, Powell for driving a stolen car while he watches a burlesque dancer, muttering to himself, “There’s too many of them. I can’t kill the world.”
Meanwhile, Ben Harper kills two men in a bank robbery and races home to hide the money inside his daughter’s doll. He promises his two children, John and Pearl, to keep it a secret. His son is shocked by how the police treat his father, beating him into the ground.
Ben and Reverend Harry share a jail cell, where the evil preacher tries to discover the location of the money. He gets just enough info on Ben’s family before he is free. Ben isn’t that lucky as he’s executed for his crimes.
Powell then appears in town to both woo and marry Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He charms all the other townsfolk except for John, who promised his father he’d never reveal where the money is.
Instead of consummating his marriage to Willa, Powell tries to get her to be part of his preaching. However, she learns that he’s looking for the money and he stabs and kills her, dumping her body in the river while telling everyone that she left him for a life of sin with a drummer.
Willa’s drowned body is discovered by Birdie Steptoe, an elderly drunk who is sort of an uncle to John. He fears the town will blame him for her death, so he tells no one. Powell starts to hunt the children and they flee in a raft down the river, only stopped for a moment to sleep in a barn. The shadow of the preacher and his singing reaches them and John exclaims, “Doesn’t he ever sleep?”
By this point, the film has become a German expressionist stage play looking fairy tale. The children escape to the home of kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish, the First Lady of American Cinema), a hard as nails old woman who is one of the few purely good people in this entire film. She protects and raises orphans, keeping the kids safe from Powell even when he tries to seduce the oldest, Ruby.
After an all-night standoff, the old woman shoots and wounds the preacher, who hides in the barn until the police arrest him. As they take him to jail, it reminds John of the night his father was arrested. He beats the man with his sister’s doll, screaming that he can keep the money.
At the trial, even the preacher’s staunchest defenders, like Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden, The Bad Seed) become screaming drunks seeking his doom. A lynch mob has gathered while the executioner smiles at him, saying that he’ll see him soon.
Meanwhile, our children have gathered for Christmas, finally safe. It echoes the dreamlike beginning of the film, which again seems to be part of a fairy tale.
This was the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton and at the time of its original release, it was considered a critical and box-office failure. Laughton never directed another film.
Robert Mitchum was very eager for the part of the preacher. When he auditioned, he impressed Laughton when he said that he was looking for the character to be “a diabolical shit.” Mitchum promptly answered, “Present!” Mitchum later remarked that Laughton was his favorite director and that this was his favorite of the films he acted in.
While Laughton proclaimed Mitchum to be different from his public image — “All this tough talk is a blind, you know. He’s a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully–when he wants to. He’s a tender man and a very great gentleman. You know, he’s really terribly shy.” — on set, once producer Paul Gregory told the star that he was too drunk to be acting, he opened the door to Gregory’s Cadillac and pissed all over the front seat.
To Gregory, Mitchum pretty much was the character he was portraying: “He was a charmer. An evil son of a bitch with a lot of charm. Mitch sort of scared me, to tell you the truth. I was always on guard. He was often in a state, and you never knew what he would do next.”