A spellbinding, nightmarish, fairytale film like no other
Hauntingly entertaining and offbeat, “The Night of the Hunter” is not your run-of-the-mill classic. With a seamless mix of the real and surreal, this one-of-a-kind thriller creates a frighteningly alive world seen from a child’s point-of-view. Its masterful use of film form, sound, and music present a parable of good versus evil, creating a film that will scare children and mesmerize everyone. The important French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, voted it the second greatest film of all-time, and the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked it as the 34th Most Thrilling American Film of all-time. This cinematic masterpiece is not to be missed.
Set during the Great Depression, the film wastes no time introducing us to its major characters within the first eight minutes. First we see “Rachel Cooper” against a night sky of stars, speaking to children about stories from the Bible. She sets up the film as she reads, “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know them by their fruits….”. We are then introduced to the sketchy “Reverend Harry Powell” driving an old touring car in West Virginia. He is conversing with God about how well He provides opportunities to acquire money to preach His word. That is followed by our introduction to the young boy “John Harper” and his even younger sister “Pearl”. Their father quickly arrives with money he robbed from a bank, hides it while his children watch, and makes them swear not to tell anyone where he hid it - even their mother “Willa”. Shortly after this introduction, “Powell” learns of the money and begins a fierce pursuit of the two defenseless children.
The film is rich with dichotomies such as light against dark, love and hate, and the authentic juxtaposed with the expressionistic. Even the Lord and the Bible are used for both good and evil. It also touches on themes of hypocrisy, religion, sex, greed, and money. "The Night of the Hunter" is told from the point-of-view of “John”, and makes the claim that children are the earth’s strongest and most adaptable human beings, though, as “Rachel” says, “It’s a hard world for little things”. Keeping in line with the film’s use of counterpoints, there is also much humor sprinkled throughout this foreboding tale.
What makes “The Night of the Hunter” so different is its startling storytelling style. Its director, Charles Laughton, called the film "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”. The film is filled with indelible images including an eleven minute showpiece as the two children flee downriver in a small skiff. With an expressionistic flair, Laughton injects a fairytale feel into this solid, riveting thriller. Along with the screenwriter James Agee, Laughton screened silent films for inspiration when preparing the film - in particular the films by the man known as the Father of Film, D.W. Griffith. According to Lilian Gish’s autobiography “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me”, Laughton said, “Griffith’s pictures made you sit up straight in your chair in anticipation of what was coming. All the surprise has gone out of modern films”. Laughton's goal was to keep his audience on the edge of their seats while watching “The Night of the Hunter”, and as a result the film is chockfull of suspense and powerfully memorable imagery.
The way Laughton has “Powell” reach for the children when chasing them up a staircase and his guttural animal cry when in the river, are straight out of a nightmare rather than reality. And his way of introducing “Powell” to the children is a direct nod to Fritz Lang's expressionist masterpiece, “M” - as both films use shadows to introduce their serial killers. Emphasizing the disparity between dark and light, the gorgeous high-contrast black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez adds an almost lyrical quality to the terror, making this film among the most beautifully lit I’ve ever seen. Shadows handsomely conceal and threaten, and characters are often shown in breathtaking, dreamlike silhouette. Scenes in bright light look and feel real, while the reality of those in darkness is slightly askew from their artificial sets and stylized acting. The film has an exceptionally innovative score by composer Walter Schumann which includes choirs, waltzes, dark themes, and songs sung by characters, all giving the film an unearthly vibe. There’s a strange, bewitching quality throughout the entire film, making it completely unique.
“The Night of the Hunter” came about because of its producer, Paul Gregory. He bought the rights to the 1953 best-selling novel by Davis Grubb (which was inspired by actual serial killer Harry Powers), and offered it to Laughton (who originally wanted to play “Powell”) convincing him to direct. Grubb loved movies and took an interest in the film, offering suggestions on casting as well as sending Laughton simple drawings of how he envisioned scenes from the film. Laughton liked the drawings and asked for more (Grubb sent well over 100), and many were closely replicated as shots in the film. James Agee was hired to write the script based on the book, and presented a 293 page screenplay which Laughton reworked and severely edited down to 92 minutes. The film was mostly shot in Los Angeles with a few exterior far shots (mostly helicopter shots) filmed by West Virginia's Ohio River.
Laughton’s inventiveness and completely unique visual approach to mainstream storytelling were clear signs he had a gift for directing. Subsequent interviews with the cast and crew all praise Laughton’s kindness, openness, and expert ability to get the best from people. By the time of this film, Laughton had recently become a successful theater director and was already an internationally respected Academy Award winning actor, often lauded as the greatest of his generation. After serving in WWI, English born Charles Laughton began appearing in amateur theatre and studying acting with Claude Rains. His professional career began on stage in 1926 to tremendous success. In the 1927 production of “Mr Prohack” he met fellow cast member, actress Elsa Lanchester, and the two married in 1929. Laughton’s first film appearances came in 1928, in three short films written by H.G. Welles for Lanchester, who starred in them all. For close to twenty years, Laughton and Lanchester traveled between the US and England, as they both made names for themselves in Hollywood. His first Hollywood film was "The Old Dark House”, followed by "Payment Deferred”, both in 1932. The following year he appeared as “King Henry VIII” in “The Private Life of Henry VIII”, earning him a Best Actor Academy Award (his only win).
Laughton’s unconventional looks, large presence and penetrating voice earned him a versatile assemblage of roles in many classic films, including “The Sign of the Cross”, “Island of Lost Souls”, “Spartacus”, “Les Misérables”, and most famously as “Quasimodo” in 1939’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and as “Captain Bligh” in the 1935 classic, “Mutiny on the Bounty” (for which he earned a second Best Actor Oscar nomination). He earned his third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination for the 1957 Billy Wilder courtroom drama, “Witness for the Prosecution”. Laughton also appeared in two Alfred Hitchcock films, "Jamaica Inn" in 1939 and "The Paradine Case" in 1947. His final film appearance was in the 1962 Otto Preminger classic, "Advise & Consent”. He began appearing on television in the mid-late 1950s, and appeared onstage throughout his career. In the 1950’s Laughton directed plays to great acclaim, including "Don Juan in Hell", "John Brown's Body", and "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial”. Because of his great successes as a theater director, he was confident “The Night of the Hunter” would also be a hit. Like other rediscovered classics, when first released this film was a financial and critical disappointment. Crushed and heartbroken, Laughton never directed another film, and once you witness his brilliant work, you'll see what a tragedy that is. He was married to Lanchester until his death, though he was gay (which she knew) and had many encounters with men (I wrote a bit more about their marriage and Lanchester in the "Mary Poppins" post). Charles Laughton died in 1962 at the age of 63.
Robert Mitchum stars as “Reverend Harry Powell”, a sinister preacher who uses God to validate his wrongdoings. Mitchum cleverly underplays, making “Powell” even more frightening. The way he speaks to the kids when alone with them rides a scary line of normalcy and outright rage, eventually giving in to the latter. “Powell” constantly sings the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, turning it into a hair-raising signal that this killer is headed your way. In addition, “Powell” has exaggerated moments, ranging from the comic (as how he first appears in his jail cell) to the ghastly (how he sprawls himself over “Willa” in bed with knife in hand). While “Powell” represents the darkness in the film, he too is a complex mix of opposites. Mitchum brings humor to this psychopath, who has the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on the fingers of opposing hands, which he uses to demonstrate the battle between good and evil in his telling of the story of Cain and Abel. His iconic tattoos have been copied and referenced in countless films and TV shows (most recently I saw an episode of the TV show “Saturday Night Live” in which they spoofed it). “Reverend Harry Powell” ranks as the 29th greatest villain on AFI’s list of The 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains, and is intriguing enough that you look forward to his scenes. It was ideal casting, as Mitchum himself possessed a dangerous and somewhat poetic quality. Mitchum’s distinct looks (part Scots-Irish and Blackfoot Indian decent), nonconformist indifference, simmering vulnerability, and smoldering sexual appeal make it understandable how women could be taken by “Powell”. Considered one of Hollywood’s original bad boys and antiheroes, Mitchum was voted #23 of the men on the AFIs list of the 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. By all accounts, the real Mitchum was very much like his screen persona, and perhaps that is key to his undefinable movie star quality.
The loss of his father in a railroad accident before he turned two years old marked Robert Mitchum’s life with a feeling of loneliness he couldn’t shake. After moving around and being expelled from schools, at twelve years old he took to the road, hitchhiking and riding on freight trains, crossing the country nine times alongside ex-cons and other tough characters. He was picked up for vagrancy at fifteen years old and put to work on a Chain Gang, from which he eventually escaped. He made his way to his sister in Long Beach, California, and when someone suggested he join the Long Beach Playhouse because they needed more guys, he did. At sixteen he married Dorothy (who was fourteen), and they remained married until his death. After odd jobs (including being a ghostwriter for the "astrologer to the stars” Carroll Righter), and getting temporary blindness due to a nervous breakdown, he thought he'd try his hand at film acting. His first role was a tiny uncredited part as a solider in 1943’s, “The Human Comedy”. From there he worked steadily in small parts, appearing in twenty five films by the end of 1944. After appearing in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” at the end of 1944, RKO Studios gave him a standard seven year contract. His break came two films later, in 1945’s "Story of G.I. Joe”, which earned Mitchum his first and only Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). He then appeared in a string of films in the genre for which he is best known - film noir. They include “Crossfire”, "Undercurrent", "Angel Face", "The Big Steal”, and most famously, "Out of the Past”.
In 1948 he was arrested for possession of marijuana, for which he served 43 days in a prison farm, until the ruling was overturned. Instead of hurting his career, it somehow helped further his rebellious, tough guy image. He was paired with Jane Russell in two films, “His Kind of Woman” in 1951 and “Macao” in 1952, and they generated enough screen chemistry to become an unforgettable duo (and became neighbors and close, lifelong friends). He appeared on television later in his career, amassing just over 130 film and TV credits, including "Cape Fear", "The Longest Day", "River of No Return", "Two for the Seesaw", "El Dorado", "Ryan's Daughter", “The Sundowners”, and “Farewell My Lovely”. Mitchum sang in over a half dozen of his films, and that’s him singing in “The Night of the Hunter”. He also recorded two albums of songs, which included the singles "The Ballad of Thunder Road” in 1958, and "Little Old Wine Drinker Me" in 1967 (which charted in the top ten of Billboard's Country Singles). He caused a bit of an uproar with a 1983 interview he gave to Esquire Magazine, in which he made antisemitic, racist and sexist remarks, including denying that the Holocaust happened. With hate mail and a negative response, a month later he apologized claiming he was somehow tricked into these answers, and was answering them as his character from the film “That Champion Season”, which he was promoting at the time. The following year he entered the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, California to treat a drinking problem. In 1992 he was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Golden Globe Awards to honor his body of work. Robert Mitchum died in 1997 at the age of 79.
Shelley Winters stars as “Willa Harper”, mother of “John” and “Pearl”. With her superlative talent, she creates a portrait of a fragile, vulnerable, and lost woman. She said of the part, “I had an image of her like a fly fascinated by a spider, and she very willingly walks into his web”. “The Night of the Hunter” contains interesting glimpses of women from three perspectives: the strong “Rachel Cooper”, the “proper” 1930’s woman of religious morals as seen in “Icey Spoon”, and the sexually wanting woman seen though the repressed “Willa”. When “Icey” tells “Willa”, “No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two”, “Willa” replies, “I just don’t want a husband”. She succumbs to religious intimidation, and when her new husband, “Powell” refuses to copulate, she funnels her sexual frustration into religion. Her bedroom looks like a chapel, and in bed she looks like a corpse in a coffin. “The Night of the Hunter” came four years after the classic “A Place in the Sun” - a pivotal film that marked Winters' shifting from a blonde bombshell into a character actress. She famously studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg (and later taught at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute), and also took a Shakespearian acting class with Laughton sometime before “The Night of the Hunter”. I’ve written more about Shelley Winters’ life and career in my posts on “A Place in the Sun”, and “The Poseidon Adventure”. Please read them to learn more about his super talented actress.
Lillian Gish plays “Rachel Cooper”, a woman who mothers unwanted and orphaned children. She is the light against “Powell’s” dark. Reinforcing the fairytale aspect of “The Night of the Hunter”, there are multiple shots of “Rachel” walking in a line with her children, looking exactly like Mother Goose and her ducklings. Gish practically steals the film in her scenes, as her performance overflows with a simple, straightforward honesty on top of a wall of strength. This is one woman you don’t want to mess with. Notice her quiet power and underlying love as she stirs a pot on the stove while talking about the plight of children. In watching her layered performance you can understand why Gish was touted “The First Lady of American Cinema”, and was voted number 17 of the women on AFI’s list of the 50 Greatest American Screen Legends.
With an alcoholic father who was never around, Lillian Gish began acting onstage at the age of six alongside her sister Dorothy and their mother Mary to make ends meet. After about a dozen years of success in theater, she and her sister were spotted by D.W. Griffith who put them both in their first film, his 1912 short ”An Unseen Enemy”. By the end of 1914, Gish had appeared in forty-five shorts and features, thirty one of which were directed by Griffith. The two had a fruitful collaboration as they both developed their crafts, inventing techniques in the arts of film acting and directing. It is no small feat that Gish was able to move expertly from acting in the theater to the screen (the two mediums require different skills) as films and screen acting were largely being born. She experimented and challenged herself, and her complex emotions and subtle acting style became the blueprint for the film acting we see today. Gish quickly became a major silent film star, known for portraying fragile, suffering but strong heroines. Taking her craft seriously, she became the silent era’s most esteemed actress, often putting herself in life threatening situations for a role. She stopped eating and drinking three days before filming her death scene in “La Bohème”. In her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me”, Gish said this about filming a scene in the silent classic “Way Down East” during an actual blizzard in subzero temperatures on the frozen White River in Vermont, “For the scene in which Anna (Gish) faints on the ice floe... I suggested that my hand and my hair trail in the water as I lay on the flow that was drifting toward the falls. Mr. Griffith was delighted with the effect. After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long”. She was on that slab at least twenty times a day for three weeks to get the shot.
1915 began a slew of what are considered Griffith’s masterworks - all starring Gish, beginning with the controversial landmark, “The Birth of a Nation” (the highest grossing film of the silent era), and including "Intolerance", "Broken Blossoms", "Way Down East", and "Orphans of the Storm”. As public tastes began to change in the early 1920s, her career began to wane a bit and she made less films, becoming more picky of the films in which she would appear. Her standout films during this period were “The Scarlett Letter” in 1926 and “The Wind” in 1928, both directed by Victor Seastrom. Gish’s first sound film, 1930’s “One Romantic Night”, was a lackluster success. Audiences were no longer interested in the innocent, asexual types with which she was associated, as dangerous and sexual femme fatale types such as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford took centerstage. After appearing in one more film, “His Double Life” in 1933, she stopped making films and turned to theater and radio. She was lured back to smaller roles in a handful of films beginning in 1942, which include “Portrait of Jennie”, “The Unforgiven”, and the 1946 classic western, “Duel in the Sun”, for which she earned her only competitive Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actress). She also began appearing on television in 1949, where she would work extensively for the remainder of her career. Her final appearance was in the 1987 film, “The Whales of August”, opposite Bette Davis. Gish appeared in twenty-five films with her sister Dorothy (who also became a star), and directed one film - 1920’s “Remodeling Her Husband” starring Dorothy. In 1971 Gish was awarded an honorary Oscar for superlative artistry and distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures, and she received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1984. She wrote three autobiographies - “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me”, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish”, and “An Actor’s Life for Me”, and was an advocate for silent film preservation. She never married. Lillian Gish died in 1993 at the age of 99.
James Gleason plays “Uncle ‘Birdie’ Steptoe”, a friend of “John’s” who lives on a small riverboat. He was an actor, playwright and screenwriter who started his career in the theater. Gleason is a character actor you see often in classic films, with a film and TV career spanning from 1922 through 1958. Some of his other classics include "The Broadway Melody" (the second film to win a Best Picture Academy Award, which he co-wrote), "The Clock", "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", "Meet John Doe", "The Last Hurrah", and 1941’s "Here Comes Mr. Jordan” for which he earned his only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor). He was married once until his wife’s death. James Gleason died in 1959 at the age of 76.
Peter Graves plays “Ben Harper”, father of “John” and "Pearl", and husband to “Willa”. With a distinct deep voice, he began on radio, later shifted to acting, and started appearing in films in 1942. Working steadily in films and television, the peak of his career came in his early 40s, when he took over the lead role during the second season of the classic 1960’s TV series, “Mission Impossible”. He starred on the show for six seasons, earned an Emmy Award nomination, and became a household name. With nearly 150 film and TV credits, his other classic films include “Stalag 17”, “Airplane!”, and "Airplane II: The Sequel". He played himself in the 2002 film, "Men in Black II”. He was married once until his death. His brother is actor James Arness. Peter Graves died in 14, 2010 at the age of 83.
Billy Chapin play “John Harper”, the boy whose point of view drives the narrative. Chapin is marvelous, and pretty much carries the film while giving it heart and soul. Chapin first appeared in films in 1944, and on television in 1952, where he worked extensively. He made his Broadway debut in the 1951 play, “Three Wishes for Jamie”, for which he won the N.Y. Drama Critics Award as the most promising young actor of the year. Mostly working in TV, he appeared in just under a dozen films, including an uncredited role in "There's No Business Like Show Business”. He is best remembered for “The Night of the Hunter”. He never married. Billy Chapin died in 2016 at the age of 72.
“The Night of the Hunter” was way ahead of its time. When studio executives screened the film for the first time they deemed it “too arty” and barely helped promote it. The film garnered no awards or nominations of any kind, was rated “B” by the Legion of Decency (because they felt it degraded marriage), was banned in Tennessee, rated “adults only” in the UK, and was a financial and critical failure. It later began playing on television and became a sort of cult film. After gaining more and more exposure, by the 1970s it became considered a certified classic. Sadly Laughton never lived to see the love and appreciation his work ended up earning.
Beauty and fear mark this massively entertaining storybook-like allegory, as it is one gorgeously filmed tale of terror. It is a film that can keep you on the edge of your seat time and time again. Enjoy “The Night of the Hunter”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
One of the film’s most iconic images is when “John” is in the barn and sees “Powell” in the distance on his horse. That was no special effect, but was filmed on a large soundstage, with a little person riding a pony in the far distance.
Poor Shelley Winters seems to constantly end up underwater (she drowns in both films previously written about on this blog - “The Poseidon Adventure” and “A Place in the Sun”). The shot of her at the bottom of the river with her neck slashed and her hair flowing is the film’s most iconic shot, and captures the film’s ingenious mix of horror and poetry.