The Night Of The Hunter (1955): Yell! Magazine’s Greatest Film Series

Harry Powell to John Harper:

“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. See these fingers, dear hearts? They 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 [Powell inter-twines his hands together the way lovers embrace while walking, but his hands are held out in front of him]. These fingers is always a-warring and a-tugging, one again’ t’other. Now watch ’em [Powell forces his right hand into a subordinate position to his left hand].

Old Brother Left-Hand. Left hand hates a-fighting. And it looks like Love’s a goner. But wait a minute! But wait a minute [Powell twists his hands so the right takes over dominant position]. Hot dog Love’s a-winning. Yes, sirree. It’s Love that won. And Old Left-Hand Hate is down for the count.”

The quote from the beginning of perhaps Robert Mitchum’s greatest film (the Charles Laughton thriller The Night of the Hunter), gives the boy John Harper (Billy Chapin) an explanation for the tattoos on Harry Powell’s fingers. We see these prison tatts even now over 50 years after the release of the black-and-white classic. Although arguments abound about the actual origin of the tattoos showing L-O-V-E, on the four fingers of the right hand sequentially from the pinky to the index, (similarly on the left spelling H-A-T-E beginning with the index and ending at the pinky), this film was the earliest recording of it on the big screen.

The film itself tells the story of Powell (Robert Mitchum), a convict, murderer, and religious fanatic who travels the country disguised as a preacher. His M.O. is to prey on widows and steal their savings. After murdering them with a switchblade he moves onto another town and another victim. Powell is caught in a stolen car and sentenced to 30 days in the state penitentiary. While inside, Powell bunks with a convict named Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper robbed a bank for $10,000 and killed two people in the process. He has been sentenced to death for his crimes but before the police caught up to him, he managed to hide the money with his children, John and Pearl.

Hearing about the money when Harper speaks in his sleep, Powell travels to Harper’s hometown (Cresap’s Landing) after his release and Harper’s hanging. Telling the town that he was the penitentiary’s preacher and witnessed Harper’s death, which motivated him to quit the job and come to town to tell the widow Harper of her husband’s demise, Powell gains a reputation for being a righteous and respectable man of the cloth. Eventually, he marries the widow Harper and begins his quest to find where the money has been hidden.

After murdering the widow Harper (slitting her throat and sending her to the bottom of the river in a car), Powell searches for the children who are hidden in the basement of the house. Powell finds them and although John and Pearl swore to their father that they would tell no one where the money was hidden, Powell uses violence to extract the information. Before he can take the money hidden in Pearl’s stuffed doll, the children escape in a skiff after launching it down river.

After days of travel, with Powell following on horseback, the children meet up with Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) when they land on the side of the river. Rachel Cooper is a God-fearing spinster who runs an informal house for abandoned children. Strong in the Lord, Cooper defends John and Pearl when Harry Powell shows up. After wounding Powell with a shotgun, Cooper calls in the police who arrest the criminal. The film finishes with an oration by Cooper telling how God gives children the ability to abide no matter what the circumstances.

With a few exceptions (those being the obviously fake facial expressions by Chapin and Mitchum in a few scenes), the film is a well-acted, masterful tale of suspense. Charles Laughton uses his camera quite well, setting up shots that give audiences feelings of claustrophobia. Narrow staircases, the use of shadow, and camera’s shooting from ground level, all cause the film to emit an atmosphere of anxiety and foreboding. Although this is Laughton’s only directorial credit, The Night of the Hunter easily stands beside anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

The LOVE and Hate Scene:

The Night of the Hunter Gallery:

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
Year Released:
26 July, 1955
Charles Laughton
Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden
Thriller, Suspense
Official URL:

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