In the 1950s Hollywood saw the gradual decline of Hay’s Code, a set of censorship and regulations imposed on filmmakers by the industry. Artists began to ignore the guidelines and pushed the envelope on what the industry and audience considered the norm; previously taboo topics such as voyeurism, violence and profanity began to creep into films. Charles Laughton is not known as a prominent counterfigure of the codes or even as a director, but rather as an actor. His sole directorial feature, “The Night of the Hunter” remains a fascinating look at the content Hollywood attempted to suppress.

The 1955 film, adapted from Davis Grubb’s homonymous novel, details a sociopathic, self-proclaimed preacher Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who prowls into the Harper family lives, attempting to steal $10,000, hidden by the children John and Pearl. Exploiting his syntactic charm, the Reverend establishes himself as a vessel for the gospel and the seemingly ideal patriarch. He wins over the trust of widowed Willa Harper and almost everyone around him, except for John. John refuses to give up the location of the money, catalyzing an unnerving cross-country pursuit.

While many old Hollywood films, intended to elicit scares and chills, come off as dated today, what’s immediately apparent about “The Night of the Hunter” is its onslaught of dread that still resonates. Robert Mitchum exhibits this dread, portraying a bogeyman who knows how to keep a perfect, enticing facade and when to lower it, revealing a chilling rogue. The Svengali preacher’s presence, whether it be the first, second, or third, is always a foreboding event. From a rumbling train, a trotting horseback arrival to eerie ballads, sung expertly by Mitchum himself, the Reverend is masterfully introduced. Regardless of which persona he seems to display, Mitchum remains unsettlingly calm, ultimately blurring the lines and keeping us in the dark as to when or if he will ever explode.

Although Harry Powell’s demeanor remains arresting, it’s the strict ideals he abides by that makes him a fascinating character, and “The Night of the Hunter” much more than a benchmark thriller. A self-titled preacher, Powell’s life revolves around upholding religion. We see the Reverend pocket his sexual desires and misogynistic anger at a burlesque show, but the latter eventually gives away in a verbal outburst against Willa during their wedding night. Powell roars that the marriage is sacred and that consummation is lustful unless Willa wants more children.

Through Powell, Laughton dramatically displays the ways religion can be weaponized and the subtle and unsubtle effects that it can cause. Within a day, the Reverend manipulated an entire town unfamiliar to him, and within a night, diminished Willa through his extreme patriarchal beliefs. Like the tattoos, “Love” and “Hate” on the Reverend’s knuckles, “The Night of the Hunter” acts as a dichotomy. The choice to set the story in the South, a region where orthodoxy and tradition are valued, creates hypocrisy, for these individuals fall victim to a man who shares nothing in common with them. Images of wildlife and suburbia are trailed by the menacing sight and sound of shadows and song. Childhood innocence faces off against the embodiment of sin and corruption.

To visualize this story of opposites and establish mood, “The Night of the Hunter” draws from expressionist films and displays an art design reminiscent of a macabre nightmare. Laughton and cinematographer Stanely Cortez’s lighting choices are unconventional; key lights and hard lighting are often employed unrealistically to produce dramatic, striking images. The set design shares an uncanny semblance to a staged, dollhouse aesthetic, but the shadows envelope these interiors with claustrophobia and a sense of depth.

Some countless shots and sequences can be praised, but the one that never fails to impress upon rewatch is when the Reverend paces around Willa’s bedroom, eventually looming over her. The moonlight cuts the frame while Powell arches toward the window, almost as if he is ascending to a higher plane. When he stands over Willa, cutting the moonlight once again, she resembles the paintings of the Virgin Mary, recalling the concept of true or faux purity.

Although it was a financial flop and panned by critics upon release, “The Night of the Hunter’s” uncompromising story and direction is why time has proven to be kind on the now-deemed essential of film canon. It’s a seemingly classic Hollywood story of good versus evil, but also a deeper trek into the dark side of humanity the industry didn’t dare to venture into decades ago.