Charles Laughton's first and only film as a director (1955) is an enduring masterpiece—dark, deep, beautiful, aglow. Robert Mitchum, in the role that most fully exploits his ferocious sexuality, is the evil preacher pursuing two orphaned children across a sinister, barren midwest; Lillian Gish is the widow who protects the children, in a depiction of maternal love worthy of her mentor, D.W. Griffith. Laughton's direction has Germanic overtones—not only in the expressionism that occasionally grips the image, but also in a pervasive, brooding romanticism that suggests the Erl-King of Goethe and Schubert. But ultimately the source of its style and power is mysterious—it is a film without precedent and without any real equals.
By Dave Kehr