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Depression era Southern USA: Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) travels the
countryside as a preacher, with the words love and hate tattooed on his
hands to demonstrate the fight between good and evil. Thing is, Harry
Powell is no preacher at all, he is a misogynist crook, a wifekiller, and
a greedy thief, whose perverted mind actually tells him he is doing the
work of the lord ... Eventually however, he is caught driving a stolen car
and sent to prison for two months - and as fortune has it, he shares the
cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), whom the Depression has turned into a
bankrobber and murderer and who now awaits his execution. Thing is though,
the loot from his last heist has never been found, so Powell figures he
might as well give it a try ...
Later: Ben Harper has been executed and Powell has been released - and
the first thing he does is to head to Harper's home, get friendly with his
wife Willa (Shelley Winters), and try to learn where the money is hidden.
But soon enough, he figures that Willa knows nothing, but her young kids
John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) do ... so he gets ever
friendlier with Willa and eventually he proposes to her, and since she is
a single young mother, everyone in her village seems to be on his side -
and ultimately Willa says yes, much to the dismay and even horror of John,
who seems to be the only one able to see through Powell.
For a while, the marriage goes well, even if Powell refuses to have sex
with her, and even if John disapproves of his new dad more and
more, but then even Willa starts to see through Powell and realizes
everything he has done was just for the money - which she pays with her
In town of course Powell claims Willa has run off with either the loot
or another man and gives a convincing performance as the cheated husband -
but at home he now seems to have free access to the children, and he stops
at nothing to get what he wants, and even threatens them with his knife.
He finds out as much, that the money is hidden in Pearl's ragdoll, but
before he can get his hands on the money, the kids manage to make an
escape, borrow a rowboat and head downriver - with no actual
destiantion actually, just away from home ...
Powell picks up pursuit on a stolen horse, but for the longest time,
the children seem to be just out of reach. Then though they are taken in
by benign Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who has taken it upon herself to
give homeless kids abode and something resembling a family after her own
son has died. Gradually, John and Pearl open up to Mrs Cooper (though not
enough to tell her about the money hidden in the ragdoll) and even start
to enjoy life with her and her other foster children. Powell though hasn't
given up yet, and eventually he learns about the kind-hearted woman who
takes care of orphans and the like on a regular basis - and he picks Ruby
(Gloria Castillo), the oldest of her kids and a girl on the verge to
adulthood who has not yet learned to understand let alone control her
feelings, and who promptly falls in love with him and tells him
Soon enough, Powell shows up on Mrs Cooper's doorstep and claims John
and Pearl to be his own children he wants to take back, but Mrs Cooper
sees through him right away and chases him off. Powell though was never
one to give up easily, and he soon puts the Cooper house under siege, and
only Mrs Cooper's loaded gun keeps him from entering right away.
Eventually he sneaks in but hasn't taken into account Mrs Cooper's itchy
trigger finger, and she seriously injures him so he makes a hasty getaway
and hides out in Mrs Cooper's barn - but Mrs Cooper immediately calls the
authorities who arrest him soon enough. John, only now realizing that
Powell has killed his mother for the money, throws the ragdoll at him so
it bursts as if giving him the money would return his mum ...
Powell is tried and convicted to death, and the authorites only just
save him from a lynchmob, interestingly consisting of much of the same
villagers who once persuaded Willa to marry him in the first place.
John and Pearl meanwhile have found a new home with Mrs Cooper ...
This rilm, popular screen villain Charles Laughton's only film
as a director, is nothing short of great, an darkly poetic odyssey of two
children trying to evade the inevitable, caught in beautiful and
impressive (if not necessarily subtle) pictures and constantly avoiding
the wagonload of kitsch that seems to come natural with a story like this.
Of course, the film is also carried by all-around great performances (with
Robert Mitchum at his despicable best, though the villain role was an
exception in the actors career) and expert pacing that keeps the fim
moving slowly just like the river the kids travel on.
A masterpiece that
was actually underappreciated at the time of its release.