This is the first and only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, and it's a shame he didn't direct anything else, because this one is quite good.
A shady preacher named Harry Powell gets sent to jail. While there, he learns from his cell mate of a hidden stash of money that his kids know about. After the man is executed and Harry is released, he sets his sights on his late cell mate's family in order to get to the fortune. He's so determined that he'll do whatever it takes, even if that includes being nefarious...
This is a thrilling film, and it really does have it's moments of creepiness and tension, but I think it would have been far stronger had it been released in the 1970s. But, because it is from the 50s, it has to be toned down, which, in principle, I'm not against; my main beef is the music. It's all over the place, especially whre the tone of the film is concerned. It comes off as a major melodrama at times, and not in a good way, especially for something that is basically a hooror/chase movie.
That's my biggest complaint, and that's not a minor issue, either. I should be giving this a lower rating, but the rest of the film is so strong, especially the cinematography and Robert Mitchum's phenomenally creepy and superbly strong performance as Powell that I can't hate on it as much as I should. He is quite intense, and very memorable. Shelley Winters is okay, but not quite as strong. The real treat for me though was seeing silent film star Lillian Gish as a kindly old woman who shelters Powell's stepchildren, and has no qualms about wielding a shotgun...which is totally awesome.
All in all, this is a fine film, but would be undeniably better if the music were more consistent, and the film weren't burdened by rating restrictions. That said, they generally make the most of the situation, and the result is really great.