Probably Robert Mitchum's best-known performance was in this extremely creepy suspense-horror film from 1955 (well, this and Cape Fear
). It's the one where he has "Love" and "Hate" tattooed across his knuckles
. He plays Harry Powell, a preacher and psychotic serial murderer who one day gets married to Willa Harper, newly widowed and mother of two. Willa's previous husband has just been hanged for robbing a bank and killing two men in the process, and Harry is hoping to get his hands on the hidden money. And then it gets really messed-up.
One of the all-time classics of American cinema, and Charles Laughton
's sole film as a director
. Also the inspiration for the Thirty Seconds to Mars
song of the same name.
This film provides examples of:
- Adults Are Useless: Pretty much everyone except Rachel and even she admits she "lost her son's love" a long time ago.
- Especially Willa, who doesn't lift a hand in her own defense when Harry kills her, despite knowing full well he's likely to kill her children next.
- The Atoner: Rachel has stated that she "lost her son's love" a long time before the story started. She seems to be looking after the kids as a way to make up for her previous actions. All in all, this just demonstrates that she's a better person than most of the other adults in the film. She knows she did something wrong and now she's trying to make it right, and she doesn't deny her sins.
- Author Filibuster: Invoked. Rachel ends the film with a sermon about how children can recover from any psychological trauma, blithely ignoring that at least two of her foster children have quietly gone insane. (The Hays Code insisted that the children be all right at the end.)
- Bad Habits
- Big Brother Instinct: John is very protective of Pearl.
- The Bluebeard: Lampshaded during the finale.
- Brainwashed: Willa
- Broken Pedestal: Say what you will about the stepfather, but the kids' real father is no saint either. And Uncle Birdie turns out to be utterly useless.
- Powell becomes this to Pearl once he shows his true colors.
- Call On Me: Uncle Birdie tells John this at one point, but when the time comes he's passed out drunk.
- Children Are Innocent: They abide, too.
- Cool Old Lady: Rachel
- Creepy Basement
- Determinator: John will do anything to keep his father's secret.
- Devil in Plain Sight
- Expy: Many villains are based on Mitchum's performance as Powell, such as Kane from Poltergeist II The Other Side and Caleb from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob gets in on the action in one episode, and The Clash give him a Shout-Out in "Death or Glory".
- Fairy Tale Motifs
- Fille Fatale: Ruby, who has some serious psychological problems.
- Flash Back Echo: Done more subtly than many recent cases. At the end of the film when Harry is being arrested, John's freak-out, begging them not to take him away, and throwing the money, echoes what he was feeling but didn't fully express when his father was being arrested at the beginning of the film.
- The Great Depression
- Grimmification: Notably the bible verses and children's songs used to eerie effect.
- Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Just about the wickedest stepfather in anything ever, that's who!
- Henpecked Husband: Walt Spoon, who notably has to endure his wife ignoring his presence to tell half the town about how she ignores him during sex.
- Heroic Vow: John has sworn not to tell anyone where the stolen money is, and has to remind Pearl of this frequently. The finale reveals this is a pointed subversion: all John had to do all along was return the money to the police and Powell wouldn't have been a threat. Keeping the secret caused the deaths of at least two people, including John's mother.
- Of course, the movie seems to be trying to point out just how shitty it was for John's father to put that burden on his young son in the first place.
- Hypocrite: A town full of them, exemplified by Mrs. Spoon.
- Implacable Man: "Don't he ever sleep?"
- He's also shot point blank by a surprised Rachel during the climax. He shrieks and flees, but is still alive the following morning.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: "There Once Was a Pretty Fly"
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The heavy handed Mrs. Rachel Cooper.
- Knife Nut: He doesn't like it when you touch it...
- Knight Templar: Harry Powell...perhaps?
- Knuckle Tattoos: Possibly the ur-example.
- Kids Are Cruel: The local children taunt John and Pearl with a nasty singsong after their father is hanged. (Hing hang hung / Look what the hangman done...)
- Large Ham: Harry Powell. "JOHN DOESN'T MATTER!"
- Manipulative Bastard: Harry
- Meaningful Name: The Spoons (the wife's name is Icey), who sell ice cream.
- My God, What Have I Done?: The Spoons seem to have this reaction once the truth about Powell comes out at the end. They actually lead an angry lynch mob against Powell, complete with Torches and Pitchforks.
- Never Mess with Granny: Rachel pulls a shotgun on Powell when he goes after John.
- Nostalgia Filter: The adorably quaint little town.
- Offscreen Teleportation: With Lampshade Hanging
- One-Book Author, in regard to Charles Laughton's directorial career (The original release received a poor reception from both audiences and critics)
- Only Sane Man: John Harper, although even he has his crazy moments. Mr. Spoon sometimes has moments, but his wife is swift to fix that.
- Rachel Cooper, smart enough to see the inconsistencies in Powell's sob story, smart enough to pull a shotgun on him.
- Scenery Porn: The riverboat scene.
- Serial Killer: Walt Spoon: Twenty-five wives! Icey Spoon: And he killed every last one of them!
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Harry watches the burlesque dancer at the beginning of the film with an expression that is equal parts lust and loathing.
- Sinister Minister: Harry maintains that he's doing God's work. Then again, he's nuts. Rachel doesn't fall for the act for a moment.
- Smug Snake: Mrs. Spoon really needs to die. Harry's a smug bastard, too.
- Something Else Also Rises: Ever seen this trope acted out before with a switchblade? Didn't think so. But that's just the kind of guy Harry Powell is...
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Leanin', leanin', safe and secure from all alarm...
- Stock Parodies: Harry's tattoos have become one of these.
- They Call Me Mister Tibbs: "Preacher Harry Powell."
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else: Harry Powell.
- Torches and Pitchforks: The film's climax has the Spoons leading an angry lynch mob against Powell.
- Villainous Breakdown: Powell does not react well when the children elude him in the boat.
- Why Did You Make Me Hit You?
- Wicked Stepfather: Harry Powell, one of the worst examples in cinematic history.
- Would Hurt a Child
- You're Not My Father