It's the Great Depression. In the process of robbing a bank of $10,000, the robbery because he is unable to provide for his family, Ben Harper kills two people. Before he is captured, he is able to convince his adolescent son John and his infant daughter, Pearl not to tell anyone, including their mother Willa, who Ben believes is too idealistic, of where he hid the money, namely in Pearl's favorite toy, a doll that she carries everywhere with her.
Ben, who is captured, tried and convicted, is sentenced to death. But before he is executed, Ben is in the state penitentiary with a cell mate, a man by the name of Harry Powell, a self-professed man of the cloth, who is really a con man and murderer, he who swindles lonely women, primarily rich widows, of their money before he kills them.
The authorities are unaware of these crimes, Harry who is incarcerated on a thirty day sentence for car theft. Harry does whatever he can, unsuccessfully, to find out the location of the $10,000 from Ben. But after Ben's execution, Harry decides that Willa will be his next mark, he figuring that someone in the family knowing where the money is.
Despite vowing not to get remarried, Willa ends up being easy prey for Harry's outward evangelicalism, as she is a pious woman who feels she needs to atone for her sins which led to Ben doing what he did, especially as Harry presents himself as the preacher who worked at the prison and provided salvation to Ben before his death. But Harry also quickly figures that John and Pearl know where the money is.
Conversely, John doesn't trust Harry, John who first tries not to show to Harry that he indeed does know where the money is, and then second constantly reminds a more trusting Pearl of their promise to their now deceased father.
With Willa devoted to her new husband, John and Pearl may need some other adult assistance in evading Harry's veiled threats, an adult who not only can see the honesty and goodness in children but who can also see a true wolf in sheep's clothing like Harry. Will John succeed in learning the secret of where the money is hidden from the children? How will Willa's marriage with John turn out? What price with the children have to pay for protecting their valuable secret?
Did you know?
Reports that screenwriter James Agee wrote an incoherent screenplay have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first draft. That document, although 293 pages in length, and manifestly overwritten (as is common with first drafts), is, scene-for-scene, the film that Charles Laughton directed. Likewise false are the reports that Agee was fired, related most infamously in Robert Mitchum's autobiography. Laughton, however much he gnashed his teeth at having such a behemoth of a text in his hands with only five weeks to go before the start of principal photography, calmly renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it in half; after much persuasion, he did. In Laughton's stage work ("Galileo", "Cain Mutiny Court Martial", etc), the great actor demonstrated he was a script editor of genius - he could induce the most stubborn and prideful writer to cut, cut, cut, and so he did in Agee's case. Later, apparently at Robert Mitchum's request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and Laughton. Letters and documents located in the archive of Agee's agent Paul Kohner bear this out -- they were brought to light by Laughton biographer Simon Callow, whose excellent BFI book about "Night of the Hunter" diligently sets this part of the record straight. The Agee first draft may eventually be published, but it has been read by scholars -- most notably, Professor Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due". To assert Agee's moral right to his screen credit in no way disputes Laughton's greatness as a director -- clearly, he was as expert with writers as he was with actors -- but Agee has been belittled, and even slandered, over the years (especially in Robert Mitchum's autobiography), when his contribution to "Night of the Hunter" was of primary and enduring importance. (Submitted by F. X. Feeney, film critic and author, who has read the original Agee script.) Read More