“It’s really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale we are telling,” Charles Laughton has said of The Night of the Hunter. But, as anyone who has seen this extraordinary film knows, its maker’s description only scratches the surface of this work’s terrors and enchantments. The tale is one of a psychopathic self-styled preacher (Robert Mitchum) who marries and murders a young widow (Shelley Winters) for her money; pursues her children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) to get his hands on it, only to meet his match in the form of a saintly farm woman (Lillian Gish) who becomes the children’s protector.
The Night of the Hunter has the feel and the force of an American folk fable; yet, it’s a curious and highly eccentric sort of folk fable, mixing, as it does, rural humor with gothic humor, biblical quotation and Freudian symbolism, and everyday realities with a near-mythic confrontation between the forces of good and evil. In short, The Night of the Hunter is an American movie classic. It is also an utter original.
-- David Ehrenstein, hos Criterion.