Based on Davis Grubb’s novel and directed by Charles Laughton, a homicidal preacher marries a widow to get the money her late husband stole, but her children will not tell him where it is.
Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) teaches children to beware of false prophets and that you shall know them by their fruits.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) drives an old car and talks to the Lord about what will be next. He says he is tired and mentions killings. Harry watches a strip show and has “HATE” written on his fingers. A policeman arrests him for stealing the car, and he is sentenced to thirty days.
Two children see their daddy Ben Harper (Peter Graves) come home with money that he wants to hide. He makes his son John (Bill Chapin) swear that he will guard Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and never tell about the money. Pearl swears too. Police arrive and arrest Ben. He is sentenced to be hanged.
In their jail cell Harry tries to get Ben to tell him where the money is. Ben says he robbed the bank because he saw poor children suffering during the Depression. Harry says he smuggled in his switch-blade knife. Harry says he has his own religion, and he thanks the Lord for putting him in that cell. The executioner tells an officer that Ben Harper never told the secret of where he hid the money.
Children sing about hanging. Pearl and John are kept out of school, and she asks him if he is going to buy a watch. Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) works at a soda fountain and says she does not want to get married again. At home Pearl asks John to tell her a story, and he tells about a bad man who came to steal a son’s gold. Harry casts his shadow from outside.
John tells Uncle Birdie (James Gleason) that no one stole his dad’s skiff. Birdie puts alcohol in his coffee. John finds Harry telling Pearl, Wilma, and others that he was with Ben until the end. Harry tells the Biblical story about his hands that say “HATE” and “LOVE.” He shows how love wins. John questions Harry.
Harry stays for the picnic and leads the singing of “Bringing In the Sheaves.” Wilma tells Icy Spoon (Evelyn Varden) that John is still concerned about the money. Wilma asks Harry if Ben told her about the money. She calls John. Harry tells John and Pearl that the money is at the bottom of the river wrapped around a stone.
Birdie sings “Cresap’s Landing Party.” John asks him when the skiff will be ready. John goes into the house and finds Harry is there. Harry says his mother is going to marry him, and he will be his daddy. He says they will share their fortunes, but John says he won’t tell.
Pearl asks John if she can tell Mr. Powell now. That night Wilma finds Harry in bed, and he says he was praying. He stands up and tells her to look at herself in the mirror. He says her body is meant for begetting children, not for the lust of man. He asks if she wants more children, and she says no.
Birdie and John are in the skiff fishing. Birdie tells him that he can call on him for help. At night Harry preaches, and Wilma confesses about how the law the stepped in. She said he told her to throw the money in the river.
Pearl is cutting up money to make paper dolls. John gathers the money and helps her stuff it into a doll. From the house Harry asks John what he is doing. Harry tells John that he tattled on him and that his mother believes Harry. John tells his mother that Harry asked about the money again. Harry asks John where the money is. Harry tells a secret to Pearl that her daddy said there are to be no secrets between them. He asks her where the money is hid, and John throws a hairbrush at Harry. He picks up Pearl, and she takes the doll. He asks her again and threatens her.
Walt Spoon (Don Beddoe) tells Icey something is wrong. Wilma tells Harry that the Lord brought them together. Harry takes his knife and is about to stab her. John hears the car and goes back to bed.
Icey tells Walt that Wilma has run away in the car. Harry tells Walt and Icey that she turned him out of the bed. He says he will stay and take care of the kids. Walt asks if she left word, and Harry says he burned her note. He says she will not come back. Harry says Wilma was drinking. In the river can be seen Wilma in the car. Birdie on the skiff sees her.
Harry calls the children. Pearl asks John why they have to hide. John tells her they have to run off tonight. Harry finds them in the cellar, but Icey calls to him and them. Icey offers to wash them; but Harry declines, and she leaves.
Birdie is drinking and talks to a photo about what he saw. He is afraid to tell the law lest they hang it on him. Harry shares a nice dinner with Pearl and John. Harry shows them his knife and warns Pearl not to touch it. He asks her again about the money, and she cries. John says it is buried in the cellar floor. Harry makes them go into the cellar and show him where, warning him about lying. Pearl says that John told a lie. Harry grabs John and orders him to speak. Pearl says it is in her doll. John causes a shelf to fall on Harry, and he leaves with Pearl, slamming the door on Harry’s fingers and locking it. They leave the house and run to Uncle Birdie, but he is drunk and passes out. They run to the river. As Harry approaches, they get in the skiff and push off and go down the river. Pearl has her doll and sings a lullaby.
Walt reads a letter from Harry that they are visiting his relative. He wonders if gypsies stole them. Harry is riding a horse on a road. A woman gives John and Pearl one potato each. They continue down the river. In the evening they stop at a farmhouse. They hear a woman singing a lullaby and go into the barn. They lay down in the loft. Later John hears Harry singing. He wakes up Pearl, and they go back to the skiff. As they sleep, the skiff stops by the shore.
In the morning Rachel Cooper orders them to go into her house. She asks where they are from, but they say nothing. Rachel bathes them, and they carry baskets to town with other children. She sells the eggs to a store and sends John to find Ruby (Gloria Castillo), whose boyfriend wants her to come to town on Thursday.
At home Rachel tells the children about old pharaoh and his daughter who found a skiff with the baby Moses. She sends them to bed and asks John to get her an apple. She asks where his folks are, and he says they are dead. He asks her to tell him the story again.
Ruby goes to town, and Harry talks to her. She asks if she is pretty. She tells him that Pearl and John do not let her play with them. She takes a movie magazine home to Rachel and confesses she went out with men. Rachel hugs her and says we all need love. Ruby says a man bought her ice cream, and she told him about Pearl and John. Ruby says that the man has arrived. Harry tells Rachel that he has been searching for the children. He starts to tell the story of good and evil in his hands. He says their mother took the children and asks if they are well. She says they are and asks how he will raise them without a woman. Rachel asks John what is wrong. John says he is not his dad, and he crawls under the house chased by Harry with his knife. Rachel gets a shotgun and makes Harry leave. He says he will be back when it is dark.
That night Harry sits outside the house singing. Rachel sits inside with her shotgun. She sings along with the hymn. She asks Ruby to bring the children down to her. The children stand together, and Rachel paces back and forth telling the story of King Herod killing the children and how Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Egypt. Harry speaks to her, and she shoots at him. He runs off. Rachel calls the police that she has something trapped in her barn. Rachel tells John that he has more endurance when he is young. Four police arrive and arrest Harry for the murder of Willa Harper. John says, “Don’t” and breaks the doll open hitting Harry with it, causing money to fly.
In court John is asked to identify Harry as the man who killed his mother, but he says nothing. While Rachel and the children are eating out, Icey shouts at them about the children. A mob gathers. Rachel and the children walk through the streets. Police put Harry in a car and drive off.
Rachel goes out in the snow to check the mail box. Ruby gives Rachel a Christmas present. John wraps an apple in a doily with a candle and gives it to Rachel. Rachel gives out gifts too. She talks to God about the children while cooking. John got a watch and says it is the best he ever had. Rachel says, “They abide, and they endure.”
This thriller is set in the rural South and reflects how religion can be perverted to manipulate people or be used to help them. The innocent children are the heroes and show how strong they can be when challenged by an evil adult.