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?
The scene where the children get away in the rowboat leaving the frustrated, knife-wielding preacher chest deep in the water was actually filmed on a sound stage. Robert Mitchum as the preacher was actually crouched down in the scene as the water level was a fairly shallow. Read More