A review requested by Kaitlyn B, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There are two great cinema masterpieces of American folklore.* Kind of. One of them is The Devil and Daniel Webster AKA All That Money Can Buy, which is based on a 1936 short story that draws heavily from traditional stories; the other one doesn't even come that close to a traditional source. It's an adaptation (written by movie critic and author James Agee) of a 1953 novel inspired by a murderer in the 1930s. But even granting that objection, nobody can tell me that The Night of the Hunter from 1955 is anything other than the quintessential big screen incarnation of the American folk tale. Let's not limit ourselves to nationalism: it is one of world cinema's very best expressions of fairy tale horror, full stop. And this is an achievement that shouldn't be belittled just because there are hardly any others.

The film studiously refuses to tell us where it takes place; somewhere in the middle of the United States, where there are small towns full of gossips getting into everybody's business, and where everybody is very religious but in a very vaguely Christian way. More than an hour in, dialogue sets the action somewhere on the Ohio River, which is north of where I'd have assume, but it simply doesn't matter. Nor does it particularly matter that it's the 1930s, and the Great Depression is making everybody desperate; that's only used to set the plot in motion. See, among the many men driven to extremes by the economic malaise afflicting the country and the world is Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who has just taken the only action he can think of to keep his family afloat: he's just robbed a bank, and killed two people in the process. He's ahead of the police just enough that when he gets home, he can hastily stuff the money into a ragdoll owned by his 5- or 6-year-old daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), swearing her and her older brother John (Billy Chapin) to absolutely secrecy from everybody, including their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). He's barely gotten through all of that before the police have him on the ground.

Harper is sentenced to death, and during his time in prison, he shares a cell with car-thieving itinerant preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), whose interest in the location alarms Harper considerably. As well it might: once Harper is dead, and Powell is set free, he makes a beeline for the town where the widow Harper is now dealing with the awful pressure of raising two children, alone and with no money, in the face of the pushy, obnoxious advice of her neighbors. The arrival of a charismatic preacher sets the town ablaze, and when he starts making advances towards Mrs. Harper, she's the only one who doesn't immediately hope that the preacher man marries her and gives a good life to the children. Well, her and John, who doesn't buy Powell's story that he was the prison chaplain, and that the late Mr. Harper told him that the money had been thrown in the river. And the audience: we saw Powell having his unpleasantly chummy conversation with God on the drive into town, where he mentions his appreciation for all the rich widows who cross his path; we also saw the opening scene in which a woman was found dead in a barn, and we've now got enough information to start figuring out how that woman died.

The Night of the Hunter has three very different phases - five, maybe, if we count the opening scene and closing sequence on their own, which is a good thing to do. The first and by far longest part of the movie (about an hour into a 92-minute film) is the story of, basically, the Devil and John Harper. Because there's little doubt that even if Harry Powell is a man born to human parents, even if he truly believes himself a greatly spiritual, pious man, he's evil incarnate. It is, as I said, a fairy tale: the Wicked Stepfather marrying mother so he can cajole, bully, or outright threaten John or Pearl (who is too small and innocent even to understand what the hell is going on; John's innocence dies in the shot of his stunned face when his father was taken by the cops) into revealing the location of the money. But it's also a film noir cat-and-mouse thriller as sharp and vicious as razor wire, and a Southern Gothic potboiler, drenched in sex and cruelty. The scene in which Powell humiliates her new wife on their first night together by demeaning her very demurely-expressed sex drive as a godless abomination, speaking words that imply that he's trying to protect her purity while using a tone and facial expressions that make it very clear how little purity he expects she has left, is a profoundly unnerving bit of nastiness, inordinately frank for a depiction of sex in a Hollywood movie by 1955 standards, and wickedly acute in its villain's passive-aggressive psychological gamesmanship. Meanwhile, the scenes of Powell traipsing around, before and after the wedding, are filmed by cinematographer Stanley Cortez in a world of inky black spaces interrupted by diagonal lines of stark white; but nothing is ever inkier than Powell himself. He is perpetually dressed all in black, and perpetually the darkest think onscreen, bringing a noir chill to even the brightest daylit exteriors. And it's the narrative focus on the children's plotline as the real locus of terror, and not their mother's marriage to an obvious psycho (obvious to nobody but John, but only John sees the worst of him), that helps keep the whole thing purring along in a mode that primarily suggests a bedtime story told by a real fucked-up parent.

These three tones jostle together without any apparent sense that they aren't the most natural fit in the world, and for keeping the film solidly on track throughout, we can surely give credit to Charles Laughton, the ebullient English character actor with the porcine baby face making his directorial debut with this feature. Sadly, the outraged critical response and commercial failure of The Night of the Hunter made sure he never had a follow-up in the seven remaining years of his life, which is one of the great injustices in the annals of Hollywood. This is one of the all-time great directorial debuts, witnessing a command of cinematic language and ability to guide actors to difficult, unexpected places that's right on par with Citizen Kane or Badlands (the latter is a film that more than incidentally resembles this one). It was Laughton's insight for example, to position the film as a successor to the work of D.W. Griffith, another filmmaker able to blend torrid melodrama with a host of other generic requirements, and to tell stories using strictly visual means. The results are, if not a perfect Griffith pastiche, then something even better: this feels like a lost silent from the late 1920s, made with the full knowledge of Expressionism and the fearlessness to combine moods in unexpected iterations that end up working absolutely perfectly. And yet, for all its skill at aping the heightened, presentational quality of 1920s visual storytelling, The Night of the Hunter uses sound to great effect: one of the very best moments in the movie contrasts the ethereal non-diegetic singing of a woman offering up a kind of lullaby in richly plush tones, with the singing of Powell himself just a few moments later, off in the distance in the night: the hollow echo of his voice is all the more unnerving thanks to how jarring it sounds in context.

As I was saying, somewhere back there: The Night of the Hunter spends its first hour being many things - melodrama, noir, bedtime story - but the mean that unites them all is that it's a thriller, and a horror film of a most unconventional sort. But horror nevertheless, and John's increasingly dark sense of helplessness as Powell spreads more and more over his life makes him one of the great, truly pitiable protagonists in horror cinema. There are other flashes of horror: the shots of Powell lurking about in the dark outside never lose their punch, no matter how deep into the film we go. Anyway, like I said, he's playing the Devil, and he's playing the Devil outrageously well. Frankly, I think that Mitchum gives the best performance of a villain in all of Hollywood history in The Night of the Hunter: a tightly-wound monster who thinks nothing of holding a knife up to a preteen boy with a look of otherworldly calm, and who manages to wear a lopside grin on his face in the most awful, horrifying moments. His chatty talk with God is just exactly what you'd expect from Old Scratch; comfortable and familiar and leering, more like he's bullshitting with an equal than receiving divine inspiration. When he preaches, it's appropriately thunderous for the time and place, a charismatic revival preacher building up energy in his chest and letting it out through his face and hands. There's a reason why his monologue about Love and Hate, acted out as wrestling between his hand (which have those words written on them) is a cinematic touchstone - the conceit is goofy, especially for a menacing villain, but Mitchum rips it up so shamelessly and enthusiastically that you can understand why every adult in town is drawn to him, while also reocngising that there is something outlandishly messed-up on the inside of his head. I think The Night of the Hunter would be a fine film without Mitchum - it has no other truly great performances, after all (Winters comes awfully close in the bedroom scene, and later when she's testifying at Powell's revival, but the movie almost exclusively uses her as a prop - the Beloved Mother whose death motivates Hansel and Gretel's flight into the woods), and it gets through without a problem. With Mitchum, however, it's more than fine; it is one of the great films about implacable, almost unmotivated menace - Powell's actions and tenacity are incommensurate with a greedy fella looking for some stolen money, but Mitchum so effectively amps up the jolly madness inside the character that it seems exactly right he'd behave this way.

Anyway, that's one of the three things going on in the movie. I will try not to go on at such length about the other two, although once Powell murders Willa, and lets the whole town - and children - think she ran off with another man, the film enters a phase that I like even better. John, with a flawlessly-honed sense of preservation, is prepared for Powell to amp up his threats in Willa's absence, and is able to evade the man for long enough to escape with Pearl on a rowboat, mostly drifting with the flow of the river itself. And just like a light switching off, The Night of the Hunter becomes a reverie about the natural world, and how the children drift through the world in the throes of the Depression. It is as beautiful a slice of Americana as the movies have produced, the closest cinematic equivalent to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - not bad at all for a British director. The movie almost entirely gives up being a thriller, content instead to bask in Cortez's vivid depictions of the riverbank and the houses lining it, black silhouettes against a charcoal sky, illuminated with little squares of white. It feels like something out of an especially lavish picture book. It is quiet, and reverential, and while the way that the filmmakers subtly make Chapin look more haggard throughout the whole movie reminds us that John, at least, is in mortal terror, the whole effect is of the most rapturous placidity. It is, I suspect, the "love it or hate it" moments that divide Night of the Hunter haters from Night of the Hunter's most rabid partisans; I will frankly and solemnly declare that to me, it is one of the defining sequences of American cinema.

It eventually ends, with the film's best scene - Powell on the edge of the horizon, or maybe someplace far out of sight, and John simply knows he's there, and that moment of sound I mentioned, and Chapin's faultless delivery of the line "Don't he ever sleep?" angry and tired - and the third part of the movie begins: an Angel arrives to counterbalance the Devil, in the form of old lady Rachel Cooper, who takes in the poor and helpless children of the Depression to see that they are safe, fed, and loved. She's played by Lillian Gish, a true living legend by 1955, Griffith's favorite actress and as close at it gets to The Face of Silent Cinema. And the screenplay does not help out this Silent Icon by giving her some of its few outright clunkers of dialogue - Perfect Good is not as zesty as Perfect Evil - though it compensates by passing her two absolute beauties: "Lord save little children", which Gish delivers halfway between a prayer and a cry of sorrow, and the soft, mournful "It's a hard world for little things", delivered through a stern face as Cooper listens to a cuddly bunny rabbit scream its death throes in the talons of an owl. And while I am less jazzed about this portion of the movie than the rest - it is, for one thing, suddenly and unhappily quite apparent that it's the 1930s, though at least the Cooper farmstead is suitably mythic and timeless - it remains astonishing how deftly Laughton is able to redefine the film right in the middle.

The Night of the Hunter has the profound misfortune to begin on its worst scene - Gish, unseen, preparing to read a story to her wards, whose heads appear floating in a starfield, like the pre-credits sequence of a movie titled War of the Star-Children from Mars - and to keep its second-worst till all the way at the very end - a spontaneous mob breaks out, all the hypocrites who praised Powell yowling for his blood, unwilling to wait for the executioner to do his job. And taken together, these deflate the film more than is remotely fair, because if you round up all the crap (also including some spurious trial scenes - really, there's just too much denouement, it should skip right from Powell's arrest to the Christmas morning finale), you've still got less than ten minutes, and the 80 leftover include some of the most perfect visual storytelling in the history of the medium. It is a magnificently beautiful film, expert at crafting bold moods through bold compositions and bolder lighting, all while steadily clinging to the driving narrative efficiency of a folk tale, where the details are smudged in favor of the essential matters of personality and conflict. It is horrifying and beautiful, and kept distant enough to seem like a dream or fantasy, while also being real enough that Powell's savagery and John's fortitude feel real and humane. Even if it's imperfect in some distinctly unlovely ways, it's also a magnificent example of a movie doing what movies do best: capturing emotions on film and presenting a feverish, imaginative state with the tactile quality of the real.