The Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book brings me back to the Thriller genre, with this classic starring Robert Mitchum as twisted evangelist Harry Powell, a man not afraid to commit evil in the name of the lord.
He has just served time for a car theft, and had met a prisoner, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) on death row, who shares the fact that he has $10,000 hidden from his last heist. Upon his release, he moves to the prisoner’s old town, romances, and murders his wife, Willa (Shelley Winters) and when he becomes the step-father of her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), he terrorizes them in his search for the missing cash.
With the tattoos of Love and Hate across his fingers, and with his fire and brimstone delivery, Mitchum creates an iconic image, that to this day, can still terrify. Set during the depression, Powell is a horrifying force, the most frightening of Christians, one who interprets the lord’s will to suit his own needs, as such, he hunts the children down, seeking any clue that will lead him to the money.
He manipulates the children, even before Willa’s death, trying to get the location from the children, he knows that John knows something, implying that their mother doesn’t believe them or trust them anymore.
He’s cold, calculating and when he wants, vicious and brutal. It’s a powerful performance from by Mitchum, one that resonates even now. He plays Powell to the hilt, and it’s frightening.
There is a fantastic use of light and shadow throughout the production, as shadows and silhouettes hide terrifying intent, and lights throw shapes, against the architecture, and the performers.
The entire film is permeated with a sense of dread as we are left to wonder how far Powell will go with the Harper children to get what he wants. It’s unnerving, and troubling, as all the pieces come together, the performances, the production design, lighting, script, direction.
Right up until the last moments of the film, this one keeps you on edge, and then seeing the way John reacts when Powell meets his fate speaks to so many things. This one, some sixty years on is completely captivating, and continues to wow the audience.
This is one of those ones that had been on the edge of my radar for a long time, but I never got around to seeing it, I’m glad this book finally brought it to me, and it was well worth the wait.
If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend this one enough, and if you have seen it, maybe it’s time to take a look at it again. The themes of fathers and families, of god perverted, and the innocence of children and the strength of a promise and a secret, make this one a must see.
Mitchum has never been more terrifying.