Davis Grubb [1923-1980] is remembered now as a second-tier novelist, two of whose novels--The Night of the Hunter , and Fools' Parade --were made into first-run movies. Growing up in West Virginia during the 1930's Depression years, he learned through his mother, a social worker, of the hardships of the poor and dispossesed rural people of the Ohio River region. Grubb's first novel, The Night of the Hunter, which employed this subject-matter, was a signal success, and was adapted to the screen by James Agee (screenplay) and Charles Laughton (in his only directorial effort).
That Laughton's only venture into directing should have resulted in such a stunningly impressive and original production is ironic enough. That Agee (the storied movie critic and prize-winning novelist) should die only two months before the movie was released in July 1955 is doubly ironic; it would only be Agee's second screenplay.
The movie version of the story incorporates several disparate thematic aspects, but clearly belongs within the noir category, both for the severe, evocative quality of its black and white cinematography, and for the stark contrasts of its plot and characterizations. In today's market, the film would probably be dubbed a genre horror thriller (without the gore), but in Agee's and Laughton's hands, it was treated as a surrealist mystery play, with religious, social, psychological, and historical undertones.
The plot weaves a number of devices or tropes: There's an Elmer Gantry corrupt "preacher" who has "L O V E" and "H A T E" tattooed to the fingers of his opposite hands. There's a symbolic Huck Finn river drifting sequence involving the two children. 'Thirties social conscience. Gothic rural American values. A heavy sexual guilt motif. Ritual slaying. Child molestation. Economic hardship.
The basic outline of the plot is this: A man robs a bank (Peter Graves), but before he can be apprehended, he hides the money with his two small children, making them promise not to tell where it is. In prison, before he's executed, he shares a cell with Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a small-time crooked Preacher who exploits widows. Once released, Powell targets Ben Harper's widow, and sets about trying to get his hands on the money. He marries Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), then cuts her throat and throws her in the river. The children narrowly escape from him by navigating a little rowboat down river. Harry follows on land, and catches up to them, where they've been taken in by a crusading old stepmother Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).
Harry tries to take the children back in the dead of night, but is thwarted by a shotgun-wielding Rachel. The Harper children are saved from harm and the movie ends with a parable-like finality.
Like a lot of noir movies, Night of the Hunter exploits both the artistic beauty of effective monochromatic high-contrast settings, and the aura of menace and gloom which the darker shades suggest. Many of the best scenes, especially towards the end of the movie, take place at night, in moonlight, stark street-lamp light.
As a familiar notorious Hollywood "heavy" Mitchum was right in the prime of his career, capable of playing both positive and negative characters with equal ease. Cast here as the shifty, conniving, murderous con-man, his portrait of a twisted psychopath, oozing fake unction and creepy reptilian charm, is classic Mitchum. In the ghastly murder scene, set inside a heavy ecclesiastically apse-like attic bedroom, Powell's ritualistic "cleansing" of Willa by slitting her throat, is like a primitivistic slaughter. We discover that Powell is not only a small-time grifter using his guile to hoodwink simple country-folk, but a wild-eyed pervert enraged by sexual guilt, who sublimates his own self-loathing through the persecution of women.
Winters, as the credulous, devout young housewife plays to her strengths--her simpery, slightly pugnacious naivete. In her death, powerfully represented with her body submerged at the bottom of the river, sitting in an old jalopy, her hair waving hypnotically in the gentle current--she's like a figure out of mythology, a rapt spirit forsaken to death, an orphic sacrifice, angelically calm.
As a spiritual force, the river and river country exerts a powerful influence on the course of the narrative. As with Twain's Mississippi, its current moves inexorably, the vehicle by which the orphaned children escape, which carries them ultimately to freedom and cherished family refuge. This is the same holy river of no return that carries Huck and Jim away, it is time and redemption, Eliot's great brown god, the lyrical aquifer of American literature.
The moral struggle in the world between the temptations of evil and the duty of good, dramatized by Powell's grappling fingers--"old Hate's got the upper hand, now, n' Good's on the ropes"--is the graphic cartoon of ethical hypocrisy.
Agee, who had collaborated with Walker Evans on the famous Now Let Us Praise Famous Men , a ground-breaking, watershed documentation of the poverty of the South during the height of the Depression (and Dust Bowl) years--and was also preoccupied with work on his own posthumously published Pulitzer novel A Death in the Family  which drew on his Tennessee childhood--had a keen sense of the world the movie portrayed. Agee's ambitious, rambling 350 page screen-play adaptation--longer by far than the novel from which it was drawn--had to be thoroughly revised by Laughton. Inspired by the early work of D.W. Griffith, which they had arranged to view in private screenings at the New York Museum of Modern Art, they sought an expressionistic palette of powerful effects to create a noir tapestry of high American Gothic images and scenery, replete with naturalistic detail and an almost biblical quality.
Indeed, much of the cinematography is medieval in its staginess, especially the scenes at Rachel's farm, where the crude set props--the picket fence, the dark hilly horizon line, the street-lamp, etc.--are intended not to imitate reality, but to evoke a dream-like, deliberately unreal sensation. The cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, had worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons ; and you can see both the influence of Griffith, and Welles in the low-light frames of Night.
Powell's (Mitchum's) repeated singing of the old hymn-tune "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" as he stalks the children, is like a tolling of doom, a muscular, lustful, almost feral howling (a device often used in drama to suggest the devil). Gary Cooper had been the first choice to play Powell, but he rejected it as potentially damaging to his career image. Mitchum, on the other hand, had a reputation for naughtiness in the public eye. He was the perfect choice. Laughton's distaste for organized religion was shared by Mitchum. His greasy, Bible-thumping Harry Powell is the perfect foil to Rachel's homely, nurturing power.
Night of the Hunter was not a commercial success. Perhaps it had too much going for it to appeal to American audiences, traditionally unimpressed with heavily theatrical works like this one. But Laughton's evocation of the brand of stagey "dark theatre" expressionism associated with the Group Theater and Martha Graham's Dance troupe is a hundred times more effective than the busy special effects and gratuitous violence of so much of our cinematic tradition.