The film opens with a number of scenes in rapid succession covering a fairly large amount of time: Shortly before his capture, a bank robber hides his loot somewhere on his property, swearing his children to secrecy. He is sentenced to death and executed. A while later, fellow inmate Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who knows about the missing money, approaches the widow under the guise of a retired prison chaplain in an attempt to gain the children’s trust (and the money).
The exposition here is quite clunky and often either redundant (we don’t need to be told numerous times that the father has been killed) or rudimentary. The children’s mother, for example, is clearly intended to be a bit of an unstable character from the way she acts after being introduced to Powell. A scene present in the extras section of the DVD, but not included in the film itself, which shows her devotion to her first husband and her own obsession with the whereabouts of the money, would have helped to make that a lot clearer. As is, her personality suddenly changes, seemingly because the plot requires it; something similar happens to a couple of minor characters later in the film, as well.
The villain fares somewhat better in this regard, mostly because of Mitchum, less because of the screenplay. He makes you believe this man as a credible threat to the children while understanding his apparent appeal to the adults. Wild shifts from charming to menacing to unhinged are part of the character’s internal make-up, made more cohesive by the performance. Still, Powell’s characterisation is not consistently engaging (his introduction, in which he basically explains his disorder in a lengthy monologue, is particularly tiresome).
That said, I don’t dispute that the film contains a number of highly memorable moments. Among them are an ominous shadow falling into the children’s room; Powell’s story of the continous battle between Love and Hate, which presages a tug-of-war between good and evil late in the film; a haunting underwater shot of a human corpse; and most notably a beautifully poetic and dream-like journey the children undertake in a boat.
I would say that watching The Night of the Hunter is worth it for the cinematography, music, Mitchum as Powell and isolated sequences like the ones just listed. There’s a vaguely Southern Gothic mood to the film that slowly draws the viewer in, and I don’t doubt that this can make people overlook its deficiences (I’ve certainly enjoyed features for similar reasons). But for me, the inconsistent tone and contrived plot developments prevent me from considering the movie a true masterpiece.