The influence of “The Night of the Hunter” reverberates throughout cinema, from dialogue call-backs in the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” to re-creations of Harry’s iconic “Love” and “Hate” knuckle tattoos in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and Taika Waititi’s “Boy.” Even Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” pays homage, decorating Robert De Niro’s Max Cady with religious tattoos that make the character into a double Mitchum reference, imbuing one of his best-known roles with the aesthetics of another one.
Mitchum’s Harry Powell is an influential monster not just because of his frightening actions and presence (though they count for a lot), but because his monstrosity flows through every part of him, including, crucially, his theology. Laughton was originally drawn to make “The Night of the Hunter” because of its themes of religious hypocrisy. According to biographer Simon Callow, the gay Laughton believed the church was responsible for him spending most of his life in the closet. In Powell, those repressive attitudes manifest in the way he manipulates his faith to benefit his own agenda, and a fear of sexuality that presents as an obsession with purity. He represents the literal harm that the church as an institution has historically caused vulnerable populations like the LGBTQ+ community, refugees and people of color.
Laughton’s film follows Harry as he’s arrested for car theft, and lands in prison with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man awaiting execution for killing two men during a bank robbery. Harry knows that Ben’s loot is hidden somewhere in his home, and also that the condemned man leaves behind a wife and two kids. The next steps are clear: marry Ben’s widow, find the money and get rid of the whole family.
As soon as he’s released, Harry enacts his plan, claiming to be a former prison employee who’s taken up ministry. His charm, spiritual leadership, and perceived morals quickly win over the judgmental townspeople, including Ben’s guilt-ridden widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Ben’s son John (Billy Chapin), however, remains suspicious. John and Pearl are the only ones who know the whereabouts of the stolen cash, and have sworn to secrecy.