Psycho Stepfather Supreme: Night of the Hunter

10/13/2009 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A re-do of The Stepfather? It only led me to my archive of demented dads, a movie (and real life) character I'm fascinated by. From the anti-Atticus Finch figures of Bigger than Life to Lord Love a Duck to Paper Moon, varied degrees of problematic parenting are always interesting.  But for those special psycho stepfathers, however, no one should ever forget the biggest, baddest, most brilliantly baneful step-dad of all time: Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's genius, Night of the Hunter.

A man's man and a hep cat who projected a natural-born charisma entirely his own, Robert Mitchum was, and still is an American original. There is no actor or man quite like Robert Mitchum. Brimming with understated talent (the kind that's always underrated), the actor could run the spectrum from gorgeous leading man (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) to light comedian (What a Way to Go!) to war hero (The Story of G.I. Joe) to Western existentialist (Pursued) to flawed noir antihero (Out of the Past, Angel Face, Where Danger Lives) to aged gumshoe (Farewell My Lovely) to sexy psycho (Cape Fear) to hillbilly moonshiner (Thunder Road) with nary a trace of effort. Though he was quoted as saying he sleepwalked through many of his roles (and that heavy-lidded, laconic demeanor was a large part of his barrel-chested appeal), he did work at some (or many) of his big-screen characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the actor's greatest and most terrifying roles -- as the demented preacher and scariest stepfather who ever lived, Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter.

Adapting Davis Grubb's novel (with film critic James Agee as screenwriter) into an expressionistic children's fairy tale/nightmare, Laughton not only directed a movie, but cast an elegiac spell over the audience with dreamlike, angled compositions (by cinematographer Stanley Cortez), chilling religious motifs, dark humor, disturbed perversity and pure horror. And casting the frequently flawed but lovable, romantic Robert Mitchum was just another of Laughton's ingenious moves -- the actor took viewers aback with his inspired, demonic weirdness, creating an unease that's still palpable today.

From his first moment on-screen, there's something off about Mitchum's preacher -- and that creepiness grows and expands with each succeeding scene (the switchblade popping from the pocket while watching a dancer is a terrific moment of phallic sex and death). He's a handsome hunk of man (which makes him even more frightening), he can sing hymns, he can preach the Good Book and he can seduce -- particularly the weaker of the fairer sex.

The weaker one here is an easy catch and he quickly ensnares lonely, vulnerable Shelley Winters (poor, sick Shelley) with the intent of stealing the money her late husband recently lifted (the money is hidden in her daughter's doll). After disposing of Winters (her underwater death scene is one of cinema's most startling, yet beautiful, moments), Mitchum's faux reverend hunts down her two children (wonderfully played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) with big talk, questioning threats ("Where'd you hide the money, Pearl?") and finally just plain murderous intentions.

From the picture's famous scene involving Mitchum's love-and-hate speech using tattooed knuckles, to the poetic shots of the children fleeing their pursuer down a dreamlike river, to the frightfully gorgeous way Mitchum sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," especially with pure-hearted Lillian Gish -- every moment of this picture and especially Mitchum's performance is scary, stunning and paternally demented. What's so powerful here is that, even as he loses himself in the role, you constantly fight a bizarre attraction to this animal (think of Lillian Gish's teenage orphan who can't resist) and then recoil from his unadulterated evil (it isa hard world for little things, dammit). Mitchum is a monster, a beast of a daddy, but one of bad, beautiful brilliance.

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.