The Night of the Hunter

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USA, 1955

Director: Charles Laughton

Production: United Artists; black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes. Released 1955.

Producer: Paul Gregory; screenplay: James Agee, rewritten by Charles Laughton, from the novel by Davis Grubb; photography: Stanley Cortez; editor: Robert Golden; art director: Hilyard Brown; set decorator: Al Spencer; music: Walter Schumann; special effects: Jack Rabin and Louis De Witt.

Cast: Robert Mitchum ("Preacher" Harry Powell); Shelley Winters (Willa Harper); Lillian Gish (Rachel); Billy Chapin (John); Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl); Peter Graves (Ben Harper); Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon); Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon); James Gleason (Uncle Birdie); Gloria Castillo (Ruby).



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* * *

Published in 1953, Davis Grubb's Depression-era novel about a serial killer preacher in relentless pursuit of two orphans in order to get a cache of stolen loot in their possession shot to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there for months.

The book was brought to the attention of Charles Laughton by the actor's business associate, producer Paul Gregory. Though still in demand as an actor on the stage, Laughton's movie career had hit the skids; he wanted to make the transition to movie director. Gregory thought the book ideal for Laughton's debut effort. James Agee was hired to adapt the book, but his draft proved too unwieldy and unfilmable and Laughton proceeded to adapt the book himself, though he took no screen credit for his work.

To prepare for the film, which he wanted to exude an atmosphere of early rural Americana, Laughton screened a collection of silent films by the undisputed master of such atmosphere, D. W. Griffith— then, in a further nod to the master, cast Griffith's greatest leading lady, Lillian Gish, in an important role. Robert Mitchum was Laughton's first and only choice to play the killer preacher, Harry Powell, whose warring inner demons are symbolized by the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles.

The released film was a pictorially striking but decidedly unusual combination of picaresque adventure, fairy tale, and psychological thriller that eluded the grasp of most critics, who voted "thumbs down." A box-office failure, it marked not just Laughton's screen directorial debut, but swan song as well. Over the years, however, The Night of the Hunter has come to be viewed as a masterpiece—filmed in a kaleidoscope of styles, ranging from expressionism to film noir to avante-garde, that is breathtakingly cinematic yet boldly theatrical, employing a marvelously intricate and evocative soundtrack and extraordinary music score. Very few first-time film directors have displayed such a natural gift for the medium as Laughton did with The Night of the Hunter; it's a shame he never had the opportunity to direct another movie.

The performances Laughton drew from his cast are remarkable. But the standout performance is Robert Mitchum's; the actor's frequently listless performances in other films often disguise what a fine actor he can be given a guiding hand like Laughton's. His performance as Powell is one of the screen's most chilling portraits of perversity and genuine evil. He is astonishingly persuasive as he gently coaxes orphan Pearl to tell where the money is hidden, then flies into a rage scarily calling her a "poor, silly, disgusting little wretch" when she obeys her brother's instructions to keep silent. And his frustrated cry of sheer animal rage when the skiff carrying the fleeing children slips from his grasp as he wades into the water after them sends a cold breeze from hell up the viewer's spine to this day.

So expertly made and definitive is Laughton's memorable screen version of Grubb's novel that it would seem foolhardy for anyone to attempt to remake and improve upon it. But director David Greene tried to do so in a 1991 version made for television, starring a miscast Richard Chamberlain in the Mitchum role. Astonishingly, the remake dispensed with the final third of Grubb's novel wherein Powell is brought to justice by the orphans' savior, a Mother Courage figure named Rachel—a denouement Laughton had brought potently to life with Lillian Gish in the part.

Only Diana Scarwid's touching performance as the doomed Willa (played differently but with equal vulnerability by Shelley Winters in the original), the mother of the two children who is killed by Powell rendering them orphans, saved the remake from being worthy of total dismissal—unlike Charles Laughton's version, which remains unforgettable in every way.

—John McCarty