This movie awoke my interest because I heard that it has one of the best villains in the history of Hollywood. It is a curious mixture between a film noir and a German fairy tale.
The film opens with frightful music, and a children’s lullaby that says that the children don’t have to be afraid of the hunter. Fear is only a dream. And then, a lesson from the bible that warns of false prophets, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Well, that sets the tone of the movie quite well, don’t you think? Who is this hunter, this false prophet?
Jeez this film is not subtle. Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, and it is immediately apparent that he is our hunter. And he starts right off with monologue-ing to God, saying how he gets tired of stealing money from widows, but all the while he thinks he is doing God’s work, thinking God hates perfumed women and awards him with money for killing them. Or he may be sarcastic about it, wearing a crooked smile. He’s a preacher too, but only of the religion that he worked out with God in private. In any case, he hates perfumed things because we see him balling his fist at a burlesque dancer and his knuckles spell out h-a-t-e. Not so subtle.
In prison, Powell hears about 10,000 dollars, hidden in the family house of another convict. When the convict’s executed and Powell’s free, he travels to the widow and two children left behind, hoping to steal that 10,000 dollars. He marries the widow and worms himself inside the family, while the little boy hides the secret of where the money is hidden. It is an uncomfortable film because the children are in constant danger from this madman that follows them, like the demon from It Follows (2015). The film is really Robert Mitchum’s show. He charms the whole village with his sweet-talking and some pigheaded villagers even support him. The reason why he is such a celebrated and loathsome villain is because of how he shows himself as a charming, pious gentleman and hides the lizard within.
This movie is black and white and I’m not just talking about the colors. It contrasts Powell as a corrupted evil to the innocence of children. Every shot of Powell has the intention of painting him as a wicked apparition, often hidden in shadows, and Mitchum does an excellent acting job in showing him as a smirking madman. The film is all about opposites. Opposite Mitchum are the children whom he tries to bedevil, and they are shown as pure and innocent. In one of the first scenes we see the children sitting in a bed of flowers, and this refers back to a line from the Bible said before, about how flowers are pure and beautiful.
What’s quite interesting is how the movie shows how evil can come in the shape of pious religiousness, and that people who are robbing or cussing can still be the good guys. The movie shows lots of people doing bad things, but that’s different from what Powell’s doing. There’s the hangman killing someone, and there’s a guy robbing a bank to support his children. All these actions are motivated because of the Depression that makes people desperate to protect their family. And opposite the smooth talking about God and religion, there is a swearing sailor who is nevertheless a good person. Only Powell’s actions are motivated by pure selfishness and a twisted joy.
The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue is quite bad (“I feel quite clean now. By body is a-quivering with cleanness.”) and the story is so incredibly straightforward and obvious. I wasn’t too gripped by the religious themes, it made it all so preachy, and I wasn’t too fond of the singing either. But there is great acting by Mitchum who carries the whole film on his shoulders, and some chilling scenes when he indeed becomes the hunter. It is also curious how the film mixes styles and genres. The whole thing plays like an old fairy tale of two little kids hunted by an angry wolf, but it is also shot like a film noir at the same time.