Show Me the Money

“Listen to me, son. You gotta swear. Swear means promise.”

A father (Peter Graves) kills two people in the process of stealing a wad of cash. He gets away in his car, with the police right on his tail. He races home and hides the money, with the aid of his two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Afterwards, with few moments of freedom left, he kneels down and looks up at his upright boy.

“First, swear you’ll take care of Little Pearl, guard her with your life, boy. Then, swear you won’t never tell where the money’s hid, not even your mom (Shelley Winters).”

The boy swears and it’s a promise he’ll attempt to keep for the rest of the movie. Weeks later, after his father is hanged, a menacing figure walks into his life. He is “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), an overly pious man who shared a cell with the father. Correctly suspecting that the children know where the money is hidden, the preacher begins to prey on the little tykes. Oh, the kids can keep their mouths shut all they want, but Powell is a relentless force. He won’t be easy to get rid of.

Like all brilliant films, “The Night of the Hunter” is not easy to get rid of your mind. It haunts you. It has a strange, enveloping quality that would be hard for any film to duplicate. On one hand, it could’ve played out like a generic Disney movie, where the kids are heroes and the bad guy is an adult. But this isn’t a kid’s movie at all. The movie has the chilling effect of a great horror movie, but also has the dreamlike quality of a fairy tale. It also throws in parts of adventure, thriller, and drama into the perplexing mixture. The concoction boils down to one amazing piece of work. A classic.

“The Night of the Hunter” serves up one of the best villains ever to cast a shadow on the big screen. Robert Mitchum masterfully gives his preacher a charisma you gravitate to. He doesn’t overact. He’s calm and creepy in his beguiling manner. He’s even scarier by the fact that he’s a self-proclaimed Man of God. It’s one of the many surreal contrasts that the movie uses to great effect. Here’s a film that makes children songs and church hymns disturbing, knuckles decipherable, a sunrise unsettling, and a shotgun a comforting image. In fact, “The Night of the Hunter” has a lot of stunning and striking images. Director Charles Laughton and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez use visuals beyond the “wow” factor. They exquisitely paint pictures that cause fear, anxiety, dread, despair, and ultimately, hope. While the setting is typical Norman Rockwell small-town America, there’s nothing traditional in its unpredictable plot. The story magically flows in that “Oh, the Lord works in mysterious ways” way. Indeed, this 1955 film works so well in its own mysterious way. I know most of you don’t bother with films that are decades-old and/or black and white. Here’s hoping the film finds you in its own mysterious way.

Grade: A+

Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, and Lilian Gish
Based on the novel by
Davis Grubb
Screenplay by
James Agee
Charles Laughton
Directed by
Charles Laughton