Sometimes a great villain can equal a great movie and this annual blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy is dedicated to our favourite movie baddies who we just love to hate. I do love a good movie villain; when their character is just right, they can indeed be the best part of the film they’re in. So I’m really excited to take part and eagerly anticipate reading some of those other entries!
“I can hear you whisperin’ children, so I know you’re down there. I can feel myself gettin’ awful mad. I’m out of patience children. I’m coming to find you now.”
Making a most memorable appearance in Charles Laughton’s only film as director (after the film opened to poor reviews, Laughton never directed again), Rev. Harry Powell is widely regarded by critics, authors and many film fans as one of film’s most notorious villains and I would certainly agree with that.
Played with considerable menace and sly charm by Robert Mitchum, Harry Powell is a preacher and a murderer of women. It is made abundantly clear early on in the film that he despises women, believing them to be creatures of sin and he believes that he is doing the Lord’s work by doing away with as many as he can, only regretting that it would be impossible to get rid of them all. Powell travels the country marrying widows, killing them and taking their money, something that he also craves a great deal. He often directly addresses the Lord, believing himself to be on the same wavelength as the Almighty and speaking to Him as if He were a close friend.
In the story, he quickly learns of a hidden $10,000, stolen by a man who was subsequently hanged, and soon marries the man’s widow in the hopes of getting his hands on the money, effortlessly winning over the townspeople with his devious charm. However he soon discovers that it is the man’s young children, John and Pearl, who actually know where the money is and he hounds and threatens them relentlessly until they disclose its location.
Right from the off, we know that Harry Powell is a dangerous man – the film opens with the character of Miss Potter (Lilian Gish) talking to a group of children, telling them to beware of false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing, which is exactly what Powell is. The music used when he’s on screen is distinctly ominous and he is also lighted and framed in such a way that tells that he’s evil; he often casts imposing shadows and sometimes appears in scenes that are aesthetically similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari, with similar lighting and distinctive shapes.
Powell is indeed a wolf in sheep’s clothing and is able to fool the townspeople into thinking that he’s a fine, upstanding man of God, winning the admiration and affection of his neighbours with his silver tongue and eventually plays on their sympathies when his new wife “runs off” (he actually killed her); the only one who isn’t fooled is young John, who proves himself to be a considerable nuisance to the evil preacher. By the end though, the truth is revealed and it’s not surprising that those same swooning neighbours form a lynch mob and go out baying for his blood.
And of course his threatening, hounding and frightening of young John and Pearl, at times with his beloved flick knife, is the main reason why Powell is so notorious. In this parable of good and evil, Harry Powell is the ultimate boogeyman – a relentless, nightmarish force who preys on children and it is even suggested by John that he doesn’t even sleep. As mentioned before, he often casts imposing shadows and is sometimes seen as a lone figure in the fog, almost a mythical force of terror.
In the pivotal role, Robert Mitchum is ideally cast; his deep voice lends an air of creepy menace and his often mad eyes go a long way to instilling a sense of terror and foreboding.
So all in all, Rev. Harry Powell is indeed one of cinema’s greatest villains – a relentless, determined murderer of women and the embodiment of evil who menaces two young children so that he can gets his hands on $10,000. Memorably played by Robert Mitchum, this character sticks in your mind long after the credits have rolled.