I was too young to see this film in the cinema, so had to settle for a late-night TV showing, when I was around 12 years old. Directed by the estimable Charles Laughton, this film stars Robert Mitchum in one of his finest performances, ably assisted by Shelly Winters, Lilian Gish, and Peter Graves.
Set in West Virginia, during the depression-era 1930s, Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, a fire and brimstone travelling preacher, who hides a dark secret. He is a serial killer, a fake preacher, and a man without a conscience. During a short spell in prison for car theft, he meets a man called Ben Harper, who has killed two men during a robbery. Harper confides in Powell, telling him he has hidden the loot at his home, and nobody will find it. When Harper is executed for his crime, Powell travels to Ben’s home town to meet his widow, and search for the concealed loot.
He soon charms the devout widow, Willa, (Shelly Winters) and tries to ingratiate himself with her two children too. But the boy, John Harper, is suspicious of the supposedly affable reverend, though his sister Pearl accepts him. He even marries Willa, claiming to want to care for her and the children. But when she discovers his true intentions, he kills her, and hides her body. Powell tells all the local people that Willa has run away, and left him alone to care for the children. They all rally round to help, and feel sorry for him.
The reverend eventually discovers that the money is hidden in Pearl’s rag doll, and the children run away. They hide at the home of a local old lady, Rachel Cooper, (Gish) as Powell tries to hunt them down.
This is an excellent film, with convincing performances from all involved, and a great sense of menace instilled by Laughton’s near-perfect direction, unusual camera angles, and stark black and white cinematography. At times, it is also very frightening, as Mitchum goes from concerned and caring preacher, to psychotic maniac. It is undoubtedly his film, and he commands every scene he is in by totally inhabiting the character of Powell.