Tuesday 28 April 2009



This is another of the classic noirs I'd never actually seen until I sat down yesterday evening to watch the MGM DVD release - it's seldom shown on UK television and although I was obviously aware of how important it's considered to be in the pantheon of American cinema I'd never actually seen it.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Davies Grub and loosely based on real life serial killer Harry Powers, the films sees Mitchum's character, the sleepy eyed preacher/serial killer in pursuit of two children who know the secret of the $10,000 dollars their father stole in a robbery before being hung for his crimes. Mitchum's character Harry Powell shared a cell with the convicted man and learned of the money after hearing the man talking in his sleep.

In the guise of the pious preacher Mitchum marries the children's mother (Shelley Winters) but when she discovers him trying to scare the children into revealing the whereabouts of the stolen cash, he kills her. And dumps her body in the river.

Soon afterwards he confronts the children again and now with no one to protect them things take an all together more dangerous turn. The children manage to trick Mitchum in the cellar and flee and make their escape downriver in a small rowing boat.

The Preacher then roam depression engulfed country in search of the two children, finally finding them seeking shelter with a kindly old woman played wonderfully by Lillian Gish where the showdown is acted out in dramatic style.

I've read that many people consider this Mitchum's best performance and he certainly convinces as the psychotic preacher with love and hate tattooed across his hands - Hate on the left hand and Love on the right. Every time someone notices his hands he goes into a biblical story about the right hand representing love and overcoming the left hand which does the devil's work.

Apparently the film was not popular on its original release - firstly it was shot in gloomy black and white when colour was very much in vogue and it was also presented in a standard screen size when the wide screen format was king in the cinemas. And Mitchum's portrayal of the dark, perverted, paedophile character was too much for audiences of the time.

Over time it has become considered a classic and its dream like visions still work today. At times the film seems overly theatrical, for instance when Mitchum chases the children from the cellar with his hands out like Frankenstein's monster, but it all adds to the intentional dreamy quality the director was trying to achieve. To present the film as if it were the children's nightmare.

The DVD release is a vanilla disc which is a pity since I'd like to learn more about the films history and a commentary from a film historian would have been most welcome. All we get here is the original theatrical trailer. But on the strength of the film itself and its budget price its well worth adding to any film collection.


I.J. Parnham said...

I love the song Mitchum does when he's a-coming, can't remember now what it was. A great way to build tension.

The only bum note is the number of bad characters in films who afterwards went and tattooed their hands to try to be as sinister as Mitchum was.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Ian - remember Sideshow Bob did it for the Simpsons Cape Fear remake - course the fact that they only had three fingers made it LUV and HAT. LOL.

Gloria said...

The film doesn't get shown in British TV? being one of the achievements of British-born, alughton, I'm shocked... Even the French film critics voted this film as their number two in a list of a hundred (and tied with

And Mitchum is just incredible: one of the greatest film villains ever, without a doubt. Even Laughton was kind of worried about ruining his career by making him play such an evil guy: he shouldn't ave worried, as Harry Powell has given Mitchum screen immortai¡lity.

In case you're interested in the film, there are like... 8 hours! of out-takes from the movie (A selection of which Robert Gitt of UCLA made into

I have a Charles Laughton-related blog in which I am campaigning for a proper DVD release of "Night of the Hunter with as many extras as possible (there are also a number of articles about NOTH, as well as a post on Robert Gitt's documentary)

I.J., The song Mitchum sings is "leaning on the everlasting arms": his duet with Lillian Gish is one of my favourite moments of the film.

Jenn Jilks said...

Thanks for your kind comment on my blog on Guerilla Gardening!
Yours looks worth a look or 3. :-)

Richard Prosch said...

Gloria's right --Mitchum is iconic in the role; so too as CAPE FEAR's Max Cady.

The creators of the '80s horror film POLTERGEIST copied the Powell character--sing song approach included (though I don't think with the same lyrics)--for their campy ghost preacher.

Paul D Brazill said...

A wonderful film.

Ben Willans said...

This film fucking rocks!

Lana Gramlich said...

How ironic...This was just on TV over here last night!

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