With its two-disc Blu-ray release of The Night of the Hunter, The Criterion Collection once again lives up to its name, presenting a classic film in a flawless package. The sheer volume of information that can be gleaned by digesting this release is fairly staggering. In fact, many first-time viewers of Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort may be overwhelmed by the wealth of supplemental material. Thankfully, The Night of the Hunter is a richly involving experience that rewards repeat viewings, justifying the elaborate roster of extras.
Based on a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter is, in a very basic sense, about good versus evil. More or less a horror film, the story follows a pair of pre-adolescent siblings on the run from a maniacal killer. Prior to being arrested and hauled off to jail, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) informs his young son John (Billy Chapin) of the whereabouts of $10,000 he has stolen. Ben is kind of a Robin Hood figure in this Depression-era story, believing an armed bank robbery could benefit many people in need. Ben also makes John promise to protect his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
While in jail, Ben meets the homicidal preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). When Ben talks in his sleep, the preacher manages to figure out that his children likely know the location of the stolen cash. Upon his release, Powell sets out to infiltrate the Harper household and find the money.
By now, Ben has been executed for his crimes, leaving his wife Willa (Shelley Winters) a widow. Powell preys upon the grief-stricken Willa, convincing her to marry him. Young John knows what Powell is really after, and he escapes with his sister. Powell pursues them relentlessly.
While the plot is simple, the slightly surreal storytelling makes the film seem ahead of its time. The palpable creepiness of the atmosphere sets the film apart from the era in which it was made. The performances distinguish the film as well, especially the monumentally frightening performance of Robert Mitchum. He paints a portrait of pure evil with his performance as Harry Powell. Billy Chapin is also excellent as John. Effective child actors are always hard to come by, but Chapin delivers a realistic, self-assured performance of a boy forced to deal with some very adult situations.