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Reverend Harry Powell
Played By: Robert Mitchum
- Above the Influence: A twisted example. He may be a murderer and a thief, but he has no interest in taking sexual advantage of any of his victims. Indeed, he shows disgust at any expression of sexuality.
- Ax-Crazy: Despite his calm, collected demeanor, he's a serial killing lunatic.
- Bad Habits: He's a thief, con artist, and serial killer who poses as a priest and marries his executed cellmate's widow to get his hands on the man's hidden loot, but finds himself stymied by the dead man's young children.
- Believing Their Own Lies: His Establishing Character Moment seems to suggest he actually believes himself to be doing God's work, or at least he tries to justify himself that way.
- The Bluebeard: Marrying and subsequently killing women for their money is his modus operandi.Walt Spoon: Twenty-five wives!Icey Spoon: And he killed every last one of them!
- Broken Pedestal: Pearl adored Harry, and was just as charmed by him as everyone else. Eventually, he reveals his true colours and she realizes what a vicious monster he is.
- Con Man: He mostly acts as a preacher in order to charm and eventually defraud people.
- Determinator: He'll do anything to get the stolen money, even if it means attempting to murder children.
- The way he continues stalking the children like an unstoppable monster. Lampshaded by John who wonders aloud "Don't he ever sleep?"
- Devil in Plain Sight: Justified; Powell's hand tattoos should be a giveaway that he's not to be trusted, but he's so damn charming that everyone succumbs to him. Except John and Rachel.
- Faux Affably Evil: It's pretty much a requirement for him, supposedly being a preacher moonlighting as a serial killer and all. He acts polite around John in particular, and manages to win many over with his charm. But it really doesn't take much to see through his act, which John certainly does.
- Implacable Man: Powell is downright unstoppable in his pursuit of John and Pearl.
- Knife Nut: Harry's sole weapon is a switchblade, which you ought not to touch.
- Knuckle Tattoos: The ur-example; love and hate tattooed on each hand.
- Large Ham: Due to being a rousing minister, and also in private whenever he grows impatient.
- Manipulative Bastard: Powell successfully pulls the strings of everyone in town with the exception of John; he downright brainwashes Willa.
- Offstage Villainy: We only ever see one of his murders being committed; he otherwise monologues about his past crimes.
- Serial Killer: Powell has murdered at least twenty-five women.
- Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Harry seems tormented by his sexual desire, religious belief, and outright misogyny.
- Sinister Minister: It's unclear if he's even a real minister, but he looks and dresses the part, and does seem to have a genuine belief in God, if his "conversation" with Him at the beginning is any indication.
- Sinister Switchblade: His weapon of choice.
- Smug Snake: He's a smug, sly bastard.
- Something Else Also Rises: His switchblade rises as he's watching a strip show.
- Straw Misogynist: He really hates women to a startling degree. He regularly kills them, and while he persecutes both John and Pearl, he is openly abusive to Pearl, including slapping her at one point but politely insidious to John, and in the finale he refers to Rachel Cooper and her makeshift orphanage as "whores of Babylon".
- They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Preacher Harry Powell.
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: To all appearances, he's a charming and folksy preacher and the best stepfather a child could ever want. Of course, this is just an act.
- Villainous Breakdown: He does not react well when the children elude him in the boat.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Due to being a Manipulative Bastard. John and Rachel Cooper are the only two that see through his act.
- Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: He's a master at this.
- Wicked Stepfather: One of the most prominent examples in film history.
- Would Hurt a Child: He has no qualms about attempting to beat the truth about the whereabouts of the money out of John and Pearl. He even threatens Pearl with slitting John's throat in order to browbeat her into spilling the beans.
The Harper Family
Played By: Shelley Winters
- Adults Are Useless: She 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.
- Brainwashed: Harry convinces her that she is a sinful woman and therefore deserves all the abuse he hurls at her.
- Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Just about the wickedest stepfather in anything ever, that's who!
Played By: Billy Chapin
- Big Brother Instinct: He's very protective of Pearl.
- Broken Bird: Having to keep his father's secrets and being on the run from Powell really take their toll on the poor kid. He breaks down sobbing when Powell's arrest reminds him of what happened to his dad.
- Children Are Innocent: Played with. He's much more aware of what's going on than his sister, but by the end, he still has a little bit of his innocence left as shown by his interactions with Rachel.
- Determinator: He will do anything to keep his father's secret.
- Heroic Vow: He 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.
- Only Sane Man: He's the only one who sees through Harry. That said, even he has his crazy moments.
Played By: Sally Jane Bruce
- Children Are Innocent: She doesn't fully understand either that her real father was a bank robber or that her stepfather is an evil man.
- Girly Girl: She wears frilly dresses, skips around a lot, and is always clutching her doll, even before holding onto it becomes a life-or-death-matter.
- The Load: She's only about four or five, but jeez, she makes John's job of keeping her safe not easy.
Played By: Peter Graves
- Face Death with Dignity: It's implied that he went out this way.
- Just Like Robin Hood: His justification for the robbery is that he didn't want to see his kids suffer like all the others during The Great Depression.
- Parents as People: He's extremely flawed for such a minor character. He murders to get the money for his children. Then he makes John swear promises that even a grown man would have trouble keeping, setting off the plot.
Played By: Lillian Gish
- The Atoner: She 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.
- Cool Old Lady: She turns out to be quite the Mama Bear as she totes a shotgun to defend John and Pearl from Harry.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: She's very handed and strict, but she cares.
- Meaningful Name: Rachel, a heavily symbolic name in Judeo-Christian teachings as a mother-figure.
- Mama Bear: She's very protective of the children in her care, as Harry found out.
- Never Mess with Granny: She pulls a shotgun on Powell when he goes after John. She uses it too when Powell tries to sneak into the house when she's momentarily distracted.
- Only Sane Man: She's smart enough to see the inconsistencies in Powell's sob story and to pull a shotgun on him.
- Thinking Out Loud: She does this frequently.
Played By: Gloria Castillo
- Fille Fatale: She falls madly in love with Harry, even after Rachel warns her not to. She is implied to have some serious psychological problems.