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The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter(1955)

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

SYNOPSIS

In the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s in the rural South, Ben Harper has committed murder while robbing a bank to get enough money to keep his family from being hungry and homeless. Awaiting hanging, Harper shares a cell with Harry Powell, a deranged, self-appointed preacher with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles. Harry, temporarily in the pen for car theft, tries to get Harper to tell him where he hid the cash, but all he learns is the location of Harper's family. When he's released from jail, Harry goes to the town and seduces Harper's widow, Willa, into marriage, despite the suspicions of her young son, John. Although John's little sister Pearl also adores and trusts the preacher, John reminds her they swore to their father never to reveal the hiding place of the stolen money. The Reverend Powell soon reveals his true intentions and begins tormenting the kids in an effort to learn their secret. When the nave Willa discovers her husband threatening John and Pearl, Harry kills her and dumps her body in the river. The children escape with the money hidden in Pearl's doll, and Harry takes off after them.

Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Screenplay: James Agee, Charles Laughton (uncredited), based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Robert Golden
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown
Music: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Rev. Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper), Peter Graves (Ben Harper), Don Beddoe (Walt Spoon).
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Why THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is Essential

A simple recount of the story of The Night of the Hunter cannot do justice to this unique film, often considered one of the most extraordinary contributions to American cinema. Directing a movie for the first and only time, British actor Charles Laughton creates a poetic and unusual parable of greed, corruption, and redemption in a visual and rhythmic style that consciously echoes both German Expressionism and the films of cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith. Aided by former Griffith star and muse Lillian Gish, stunning imagery from renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and evocative music by Walter Schumann, Laughton transformed Davis Grubb's novel into the closest thing to a gothic fairy tale ever put on film. All the classic elements of that form are there - dead parents, a wicked guardian, children in peril, a secret that must be guarded at all cost, a magical journey through a world populated by animals and shadows, the longing for the peace and safety of home, and a fairy godmother figure (Gish) who brings a resolution to the story and redemption for the children.

"It's really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale we were telling," Laughton said. "We tried to surround the children with creatures they might have observed, and that might have seemed part of a dream. It was, in a way, a dream for them."

Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay for The Night of the Hunter but the famous author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had a severe drinking problem (he died the same year) and the screenplay he delivered was a mammoth script by Hollywood standards that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Luckily, Laughton had a more positive experience with his second-unit directors, Terry and Denis Sanders, whose documentary film, A Time Out of War (1954) won an Oscar, and cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The latter once remarked: "Apart from The Magnificent Ambersons, the most exciting experience I have had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter..every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can't be described. Of the directors I've worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton."

Although critical reaction was generally favorable, the film was a commercial flop on its release, and it's not hard to understand why. One of the strangest movies in American film history, it was a total anomaly in the midst of the 1950s. It was an adult story told through the eyes of children, an almost Biblical tale steeped in barely suppressed sex and violence with elements of pure horror and touches of macabre humor. Yet images from the movie remain in the mind's eye long after viewing it - the preacher pursuing the children up the cellar stairs like the Frankenstein monster; the dead mother in her car at the bottom of the river, her long blond hair swaying in the current with the underwater vegetation; the deliberately unrealistic look of the journey down river with animals dominating the forefront of the image as they seem to watch the strange figures adrift in their boat; the unexpected and terrifying appearance of the preacher on his stolen horse silhouetted on the horizon; the face of Gish appearing in a starry sky in the film's finale.

For all these poetic and almost ethereal qualities, film scholars have noted the intense physicality of The Night of the Hunter, not only in its juxtaposition of light and shadow but in the harsh emptiness of the depressed rural towns against the eerie nighttime river landscape. The film may also be seen as a child-like vision of the confusing and contradictory nature of sex and the trap inherent in denying it or burying it under false religiosity. The children's widowed young mother, trapped in a small-minded gossip-ridden town, is easy prey for the repressed and tortured preacher with his condemnation of lust (even as his pocket knife bursts with fury through his clothes at the first stirring of desire). She is so swayed by what she believes is true religious fervor, she willingly accepts both sexual rejection by the preacher and her own murder as salvation. On the other hand there is the benevolent Rachel, who spouts Bible verses about compassion and forgiveness and does not condemn. She wants to protect her blossoming young ward Ruby from making mistakes she'll regret, but she also presents the girl with an eye-catching brooch that acknowledges her need to feel attractive and adult. The most honestly religious or spiritual voice in the movie, she looks on the temptations and realities of the physical world with a gentle bemusement.

Much of the film's power, however, is due to the incredible central performance of Robert Mitchum. Making full use of his tough-guy image and sleepy-eyed sexuality while equally playing against it, the persona he and Laughton create for the preacher is that of a brutal coward and a repressed psychotic. Many observers - Mitchum included - consider this his most complex and rich performance. One thing is certain, however - he's one of the most terrifying characters in cinema, worthy of taking his place beside any of the monsters lurking under the beds or in the minds of children scared and bewildered by the world around them.

The Night of the Hunter had to wait several decades before it took its rightful place alongside other revered works of the American cinema like John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). It was the sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton and he took the film's commercial failure very hard, abandoning any future plans to direct another film.

by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

An unsuccessful TV remake of The Night of the Hunter was made in 1991 with Richard Chamberlain as Harry, Diana Scarwid as Willa, and Mary Nell Santacroce as Rachel.

Scenes from The Night of the Hunter were featured in Visions of Light (1992), a documentary about cinematography.

Charles Laughton later made a recording of excerpts from the book on which the movie was based, accompanied by music from the film's soundtrack.

The image of Shelley Winters as Willa, underwater with her long hair flowing in the current, brings to mind her character in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), who boasted that as a champion swimmer she could hold her breath longer than anyone.

Other filmed versions of works by David Grubb include Fools Parade (1971) starring James Stewart and Kurt Russell and a story for Darkroom, a horror anthology series produced for television in 1981.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A few months before filming began on The Night of the Hunter, Laurence Olivier learned about the film and campaigned heavily to play Preacher Powell, even though Mitchum was already cast in the role. Laughton was quite upset by the situation but United Artists agreed that Mitchum's name was more bankable than Olivier's when it came to ticket sales.Initially, Laughton had asked his wife, Elsa Lanchester, to play Miz Cooper but she didn't want to do it, the main reason being that it would put her in a "hypersensitive" situation with her husband.

Betty Grable was Laughton's first choice to play Willa, the role that eventually went to Shelley Winters. Teresa Wright was also considered for the part as well.

The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton's only directorial effort. Starting out on the British stage in 1926, he had been acting in film since 1928 and came to Hollywood in the early '30s. A portly, homely man with very particular idiosyncrasies and affectations, he was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. Nevertheless he gave several unforgettable performances in popular and acclaimed American and British films of the decade, among them the imperious father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), the fish-out-of-water valet in the comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (1935), and the title roles in Rembrandt (1936) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). He was nominated for an Oscar® as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and won Best Actor as the British monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). He also portrayed the reluctant Roman Emperor in Joseph von Sternberg's aborted I, Claudius (1937), one of the most legendary of all "lost films." Laughton continued acting into his sixties in such pictures as The Canterville GhostThe Paradine Case (1947), as Henry VIII again in Young Bess (1953), Spartacus (1960), and his final movie, Advise and Consent (1962). He received another Best Actor Oscar® nomination as the irrepressible barrister in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which he appeared with his wife of many years (although he was known to be homosexual), Elsa Lanchester.

Eager to continue the collaboration begun with Laughton on The Night of the Hunter, producer Paul Gregory bought the film rights to Norman Mailer's war novel, The Naked and the Dead. Laughton was at first eager to do it; he worked with Stanley Cortez on ideas for cinematography and sent him to Hawaii to scout locations. He hired the Sanders brothers to help him develop a script. But after six months, it became apparent Laughton was drawing the process out too long for undetermined reasons. Nevertheless, Norman Mailer wrote later about what he learned from him: "He gave me, in fact, a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director, as he would explain to me, sometimes patiently, sometimes at the edge of his monumental impatience, how certain scenes which worked in the book just weren't feasible for the movie." The story was eventually brought to the screen in 1958 - the only other movie Paul Gregory ever produced - with Raoul Walsh directing.

Cinematographer Stanley Cortez is the brother of actor Ricardo Cortez, who started out in the 1920s as a Valentino-like Latin Lover. Stanley Cortez's Oscar®-nominated photography for Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) solidified his reputation as a masterful black-and-white cinematographer. Among his other work is Since You Went Away (1944), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963). He won the Film Critics of America award in 1942 for The Magnificent Ambersons and a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1990.

When Robert Mitchum first learned that Shelley Winters had won the part of Willa Harper, he said, "She looks and sounds as much like a wasted West Virginia girl as I do. The only bit she'll do convincingly is to float in the water with her throat cut."

Billy Chapin is the brother of TV child star Lauren Chapin (Father Knows Best).

James Gleason (Uncle Birdie) appeared with Charles Laughton in the film Tales of Manhattan (1942).

Laughton's uncredited assistants on the picture, Terry and Dennis Sanders, had only one short film to their credit before working on this - A Time Out of War (1954). They went on to film careers of their own, with Terry producing many of his brother's pictures, most of which were B-movies like Crime and Punishment USA (1959) and War Hunt (1962). Dennis Sanders' most notable work was the concert documentary, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970).

To promote the movie, Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters did a guest shot on The Ed Sullivan Show in the spring of 1955. Winters recounted in her autobiography how the stress of doing live television caused Mitchum to drink and caused her to become "shrill and numb." The two got into costume - with Mitchum displaying the words "love" and "hate" on his hands - and performed their scene quite badly. Winters said she stuttered and lapsed into "Brooklynese," while Mitchum spoke so quietly their microphones had to be cranked up so loud "millions of viewers across the U.S. could hear our stomachs rumble." During the scene, according to Winters, Mitchum held up the wrong hand to illustrate a point about love and hate, and the audience laughed.

The children's father was played by Peter Graves, brother of James (star of TV's Gunsmoke series) Arness and perhaps best known for his role as Jim Phelps on the TV series Mission: Impossible and as Capt. Oveur in the comedy Airplane! (1980).

Lillian Gish is probably best known for her films with D.W. Griffith, the pioneer of American cinema - The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Orphans of the Storm (1921). Before appearing in The Night of the Hunter, she hadn't made a film since Portrait of Jennie (1948). Her remarkable career stretched from 1912 to her last film, The Whales of August (1987).

FAMOUS QUOTES from THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

MOVIE TAGLINE: "The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, but above allthe suspense!"

RACHEL COOPER (Lillian Gish): "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing. But inwardly they are ravenous wolves."

HARRY POWELL (Robert Mitchum): "Now what's it to be, Lord, another widow? How many's it been? Six? Twelve?"

HARRY POWELL: "Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that you mind the killings. Your book is full of killings. But there are things you hate, Lord. Perfume-smelling things. Lacey things. Things with curly hair."

BEN HARPER (Peter Graves): "I robbed that bank cause I got tired of seeing children roaming the woodlands without food. Children roaming the highways in this here Depression. Children sleeping in old abandoned car bodies and junk heaps. And I promised myself I'd never see the day when my young'uns would want."

HARRY POWELL: "I come not with peace, but with a sword."

BEN HARPER: "What religion you profess, preacher?"
HARRY POWELL: "The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us."

HARRY POWELL: "H-A-T-E. It was with this left hand that ol' brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts, these fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man, the right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch and I'll show you the story of life. These fingers, dear hearts, is always warrin' and tuggin', one agin the other. Now watch em. Ol' brother left hand, left hand Hate's a fighter and it looks like Love's a goner. But wait a minute, wait a minute! Hot dog! Love's a winnin', yessiree. It's Love that won and ol' left hand's down for the count!"

ICEY SPOON: "When you been married to a man 40 years, you know all that don't amount to a hill o' beans. I been married to my Walt that long and I swear, in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my cannin'. A woman's a fool to marry for that. That's something for a man. The good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that, not really want it. It's all just a fake and a pipe dream."

WILLA HARPER (Shelley Winters): "I feel clean now. My whole body's just a quiverin' with cleanness."

HARRY POWELL: "You thought, Willa, that the minute you walked through that door I'd start pawin' at you in that abominable way men are supposed to do on their weddin' night. Look at yourself. What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begettin' children. It was not meant for the lust of men. You want more children, Willa?"
WILLA HARPER: "Ino."
HARRY POWELL: "It's the business of this marriage to mind those two you have now, not to beget more."

WILLA HARPER: "Help me to be clean, so I can be what Harry wants me to be."

HARRY POWELL: "Don't touch my knife. That makes me mad, that makes me very mad."

RACHEL COOPER: "She'll be losin' her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not I'll be saddled with the consequences."

RACHEL COOPER: "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for somethin' in this world and I know it, too."

RACHEL COOPER: "It's a hard world for little things."

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Davis Grubb's novel The Night of the Hunter was on the best-seller lists early in 1954 when producer Paul Gregory snapped it up. Gregory immediately saw it as the perfect project for actor Charles Laughton's directorial debut. The two men had worked together on stage projects, and Gregory, who had never produced a motion picture before, felt the theater and screen performances given by the often difficult and conflicted actor were "killing" him and that he needed to turn his talents to directing.

From the very beginning, it was decided by both men that Robert Mitchum would play the murderous preacher. Gregory thought the actor's unique and "quicksilver" personality was ideal for the role, the way he kept people off balance with his unpredictability - "a little scary," the producer said. "This character I want you to play is a diabolical sh*t," Laughton told Mitchum to which the actor replied, "Present." With Mitchum's name attached to the project, United Artists agreed to put up the small $700,000 budget

To adapt the novel, they hired Southern-born James Agee, a poet and journalist who made a name for himself providing the text for Walker Evans' photos in the highly acclaimed Depression chronicle, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In 1939, Agee wrote a treatment for a film based on Andre Malraux's Man's Fate. Although it was never produced, it began Agee's long and deep interest in film, and he became one of cinema's most passionate and intelligent critics, first for Time, then The Nation. Laughton and Gregory hired Agee largely on the strength of his screenplay for John Huston's highly successful The African Queen (1951). What they apparently did not know was that, by the mid-1950s, the writer was a difficult and quickly degenerating alcoholic. "The credits say Jim Agee wrote The Night of the Hunter, but he was rolling around on the floor drunk most of the time," Gregory later wrote. "He turned in a screenplay four times thicker than the book. Eventually Charles took on Dennis and Terry Sanders, whose only experience was an Academy Award-winning short they'd done as students at UCLA, to bounce ideas off."

According to a biographer of Agee, the renowned writer's script was not an adaptation at all but a "cinematic version" of the book in great detail with newsreel footage to document the Southern Depression setting and "any number of elaborate, impractical montages." Dennis Sanders confirmed that Laughton "tried to tell Jim Agee what to do" but that Agee didn't get it and Laughton wrote most of the screenplay himself. Refuting the above claim, however, was the discovery of Agee's first draft of the script in 2004; it proved that it reflected Laughton's final release version, almost scene for scene.

According to novelist Davis Grubb, Laughton wanted the film to closely resemble the mental pictures the author had in mind while writing the book. In the Lee Server biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, the author stated that Laughton "learned that Grubb was an amateur sketch artist who liked to draw scenes and caricatures of the people he created in his fiction. Seeing the value in such visualizations by the hand of the author himself, Laughton had him send them to Hollywood and phoned him up begging for new ones throughout the production, sometimes specifying that Grubb draw in the exact expression on a character's face that he'd had in mind while writing a particular scene. The writer produced over a hundred of these pen-and-ink drawings for the film. "I declare, perhaps immodestly," Grubb said, "that I was not only the author of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted but was the actual scene designer as well."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

It was Robert Mitchum who originally suggested to Laughton that they film The Night of the Hunter in authentic Appalachian locations but the director couldn't afford the budget to do on-location shooting. Besides, he wanted to create the film's unique look on Hollywood sound stages and found what he was looking for at Pathe, Republic studios and the Rowland V. Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Terry and Denis Sanders were dispatched to Ohio to film some second-unit material along the Ohio River.

Robert Mitchum never had a single regret from the minute he agreed to do The Night of the Hunter; he frequently stated over the years it was his best performance and Laughton was his best director. The admiration was mutual. Laughton, who thought Mitchum was "one of the best actors in the world," wrote in Esquire of the private man he knew to be different than the public image: "All this tough talk is a blind, you know. He's a literate, gracious, kind man, with wonderful manners, and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He's a tender man and a very great gentleman. You know, he's really terribly shy." Laughton was usually ill at ease with very macho men yet very comfortable with his star. In turn, Mitchum gave a performance that is rather uncharacteristically delicate and seductive, so much so that Lillian Gish feared the director and actor might be undercutting the character's evil. Laughton explained to her, half joking, that he didn't want to ruin Mitchum's future career by pushing him to play total evil, although the touches of humor in the character actually serve to play up the preacher's essentially ludicrous and haywire psychology. And Mitchum's borderline buffoonery makes the children's escape and eventual triumph over him more plausible. Mitchum's performance was seen as a change of pace for the actor, but notoriously unwilling or unable to accept praise for his work, he countered, "I haven't changed anything but my underwear."

With Mitchum on board, the main parts to cast were the children, their mother, and Rachel, the fairy godmother character. For the latter, Laughton wanted and got Gish, one of the most enduring legends of the screen. A combination of delicate grace and steely resolve, Gish had an almost Victorian purity that was perfect for the part. Casting her also confirmed the connection to one of Laughton's main inspirations for the film, D.W. Griffith, in whose pictures Gish had so often starred as a young actress during the silent era. (Laughton repeatedly ran and studied Griffith's films preparing for this picture.) At their initial meeting, Gish asked him why he wanted her for the part; he replied, "When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again."

Shelley Winters started her film career being stereotyped as the blonde "babe," but her casting against type as the mousy factory girl in A Place in the Sun (1951) - and the resulting Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she received - convinced directors she had much more to offer. She had occasionally studied acting with Laughton and to Mitchum's considerable dismay, he cast her as the young widowed mother who falls under Harry's spell. "Shelley defeats herself a lot," Mitchum said years later on the Today show, commenting on her reputation for throwing tantrums on movie sets. "She's so self-conscious and so insecure that she visits it on other people, which is unfortunate for her....Shelley got what she deserved, lying there dead at the bottom of the river." Nevertheless, Mitchum was so trustful of Laughton that he put aside his differences with his co-star. As for Winters, she stated that this was "the most thoughtful and reserved performance I ever gave."

Mitchum's faith in the project also helped skirt another potential production problem: Laughton apparently loathed the child actors. Mitchum tried explaining to Billy Chapin (in the key role of John) that he needed to better understand his character and his relationship to the preacher. Chapin, who had a reputation for brattiness, replied, "That's probably why I just won the New York Critics Circle prize." Laughton bellowed, "Get that child away from me!" and from then on Mitchum patiently directed the boy in their scenes together.

According to writer Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Mitchum's "devotion to Laughton and the project had begun to fade by the final week of the thirty-six-day shoot. [Producer Paul] Gregory: "Laughton had a keen thing for Mitchum, and Mitchum said all this sh*t about how he loved Charles, but he was on drugs, drunk, and what have you, and there were times when Charles couldn't get him in front of the camera. He put us through a lot of hell on that. The picture went two hundred thousand dollars over budget." To Gregory, Mitchum at times seemed uncomfortably like the character he was playing. "He was a charmer. An evil son of a bitch with a lot of charm. Mitch sort of scared me, to tell you the truth. I was always on guard. He was often in a state, and you never knew what he would do next. He would be drunk or in a fight with this flunky he kept around, and kicking him all over the place. I came from the world of the theatre and I had never seen anyone quite like this."

Despite these occasional difficulties (Mitchum's drinking, Winters' tantrums, the children's lack of experience), the working atmosphere on The Night of the Hunter was, by all accounts, not only harmonious but inspiring. Laughton had chosen famed cinematographer Stanley Cortez to shoot the picture. Known for his advanced procedures in capturing images and mood, Cortez was happy to explain to the director, every Sunday for six weeks before shooting began, all the technical aspects of the trade. But soon, he said, the student became the instructor, "not in terms of knowing about the camera but in terms of what he had to say, his ideas for the camera." The two spurred each other on with a collaborative and often unconventional approach. Cortez often took his pictorial inspiration from music, and he suggested the valse triste to be played on the soundtrack for the scene when Harry murders Willa. He later said that apart from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the most exciting experience he had working in cinema was on The Night of the Hunter and that Laughton was the only other director besides Welles who understood his approach to capturing light on film.

In the Lee Server biography of Robert Mitchum, the author described the creation of the famous underwater sequence with Willa's body at the bottom of the river: "To reveal the dead Shelley Winters seated in her car underwater, Laughton desired a bright, ethereal image, her hair floating like seaweed, and a slow, unbroken camera movement rising to the water's surface. Cortez went all over town trying to find a water tank that his lights could penetrate sufficiently, settling on the one owned by Republic Pictures. A platform suspended by a crane held eight blinding Titan sun arcs. Wind machines had to be carefully employed to blow the hair and weeds without making waves. The camera operator and an assistant worked underwater in scuba gear. The amazingly lifelike dead Shelley Winters was a wax dummy."

"Every day the marvelous team that made that picture would meet and discuss the next day's work," Cortez said. "It was designed from day to day in fullest detail, so that the details seemed fresh, fresher than if we had done the whole thing in advance." Gish echoed the sentiment: "I have to go back as far as Griffith to find a set so infused with purpose and harmony....There was never a moment's doubt as to what we were doing or how we were doing it. To please Charles Laughton was our aim. We believed in him and respected him. Totally."

It's all the more heartbreaking, then, that the picture failed so miserably at the box office and that Laughton was, as many people observed, destroyed by its poor reception. Gregory said the main problem during production was United Artists executive Bert Allenberg, who cast Mitchum in the higher-profile, big-budget picture Not as a Stranger (1955), knowing full well director Stanley Kramer planned to start shooting before The Night of the Hunter was finished. The action disrupted the filming, forcing Mitchum to return to Laughton's set on Sundays while they shot around him the rest of the week. Those involved have also said United Artists disrupted the film's chances at the box office by burying it while heavily promoting Not as a Stranger.

by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In his own words, director Charles Laughton described The Night of the Hunter (1955) as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale." Based on a popular novel by David Grubb, the film takes place in West Virginia during the Depression and follows a homicidal preacher as he stalks two children, a brother and sister, across the rural landscape. The reason for his pursuit is $10,000 in cash and it's stuffed inside a doll the little girl is carrying.

Laughton worked with James Agee on the screenplay but the famous author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had a severe drinking problem (he died the same year) and the screenplay he delivered was a mammoth script by Hollywood standards that Laughton had to whittle down to an acceptable length. Although Agee biographer Lawrence Bergman maintained that Laughton had to rewrite most of screenplay, the discovery of Agee's first draft of the script in 2004 proved that it reflected Laughton's final release version, almost scene for scene.

Laughton had a much more positive working experience with his second-unit directors, Terry and Denis Sanders, whose documentary film, A Time Out of War (1954) won an Oscar®, and cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The latter once remarked: "Apart from The Magnificent Ambersons, the most exciting experience I have had in the cinema was with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter...every day I consider something new about light, that incredible thing that can't be described. Of the directors I've worked with, only two have understood it: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton."

The casting was also exceptional and Laughton coaxed excellent performances from Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. However, he developed an aversion to the two child actors and when he overheard the little boy, Billy Chapin, brag about winning the New York Critics' Circle Prize for a recent play, Laughton roared, "Get that child away from me." After that, the two children took their direction mostly from Mitchum. The only other problem Laughton encountered was having to juggle his shooting schedule so that Mitchum could begin work on his next film, Not as a Stranger (1955).

Ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release, except by a handful of critics, The Night of the Hunter had to wait several decades before it took its rightful place alongside other revered works of the American cinema like John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). It was the sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton and he took the film's commercial failure very hard, abandoning any future plans to direct another film.

Yet, The Night of the Hunter is anything but a failure and is chock full of riches: Robert Mitchum creates a chilling portrait of evil in one of his finest performances (and one of his personal favorites); the rock-steady presence of Lillian Gish is both a homage and a direct link to the films of D.W. Griffith, the film pioneer Laughton pays tribute to with this movie; the shimmering beauty of Stanley Cortez's cinematography also recalls the shadows and lighting of other silent era classics by Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg, and the music score by Walter Schumann is unusually evocative, mixing hymns, children's songs, and orchestral effects.

Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Screenplay: James Agee, Charles Laughton (uncredited), based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Robert Golden
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown
Music: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Rev. Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), James Gleason (Birdie Steptoe), Evelyn Varden (Icey Spoon).
BW-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Night of the Hunter (1955)

AWARDS & HONORS:

In 1992, the National Film Preservation Board selected The Night of the Hunter to be preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

The Critics' Corner: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

"The atmosphere of the sticks is intense, and Robert Mitchum plays the murderous minister with an icy unctuousness that gives you the chills. There is more than malevolence and menace in his character. There is a strong trace of Freudian aberration, fanaticism, and iniquity. [Laughton] has got out of Shelley Winters a grueling performance as the vapid widow and wife. The scene of the wedding-night of Miss Winters and the preacher is one of the most devastating of its sort since Von Stroheim's Greed [1925]." - Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, September 30, 1955

"A remarkably effective scene has Miss Winters, now spirited, confessing her sins and asking forgiveness at a prayer meeting after she is persuaded into marriage by Mitchum." - Variety, July 20, 1955.

"From its opening moment, with the face of Lillian Gish magically materializing out of a star-filled sky, to its last shot of a snow-covered farm house as comfortably banal as a calendar illustration, The Night of the Hunter is one of the more unclassifiable films ever made. As directed by Charles Laughton, this 1955 production is a film of looming expressionist shadows, homespun back-fence chatter, psychopathic sexual craving, and victorious maternal wisdom. It is also along with Lang's Moonfleet [1955] and Erice's Spirit of the Beehive [1973], one of the finest, truest portraits of the childhood experience." - David Ehrenstein, Los Angeles Reader, May 1982.

"Despite its peculiar overtones of humor, this is one of the most frightening movies ever made (and truly frightening movies become classics of a kind). The two kids' flight from the madman is a mysterious, dream-like episode - a deliberately "artistic" suspense fantasy, broken by the appearance of a Christian variety fairy godmother." - Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, January 1983.

"A distinctly American Gothic interpretation of German Expressionism, with tilt pans, Stanley Cortez's moody cinematography, and a startling appearance of Lillian Gish as the incarnation of Good combating Mitchum's unreconstructed Evil. A movie about the American nightmare of greed, about the precipitous experience of two innocents, about the triumph of spirit over will, The Night of the Hunter embodies the evil of Pox Americana and its transcendence." - Carrie Rickey, The Village Voice, January 1983.

"While many films are spoken of as offbeat or unusual, it generally becomes evident with the passing of time that these films are more conventional than they once appeared to be. It remains possible, however, for an occasional film to be extremely idiosyncratic, and one film that may be so described is The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton. This work remains unexpected and strange after 25 years; far from being simply a curiosity, however, it is an important achievement, reflecting directly the influence of the silent cinema in a highly personal way." - Blake Lucas, Magill's Survey of the Cinema (Series I, Vol. 3).

"The film runs counter to the rules of commercialism; it will probably be Laughton's single experience as a director. It's a pity, for despite failures of style, The Night of the Hunter is immensely inventive. It's like a horrifying news item retold by small children. It makes us fall in love again with an experimental cinema that truly experiments, and a cinema of discovery that, in fact, discovers." - Francois Truffaut, 1956 (reprinted in The Films in My Life, Simon & Schuster, 1975).

"Rumor has it that the final shooting script of The Night of the Hunter was one-third Laughton, one-third James Agee, and one-third Davis Grubb. Be that what it may, The Night of the Hunter displays a striking visual style, almost semi-Germanic Griffith, which is completely lacking in the Huston-Agee-Forester The African Queen [1951]. Moral: Directors, not writers, are the ultimate auteurs of the cinema, at least of cinema that has any visual meaning and merit." - Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (Dutton, 1968).

"It is easy to see, however, that Night of the Hunter would never be a popular hit. Not only is the subject matter complex, the movie itself has a poetic and imagistic density which make it somewhat indigestible on first viewing. It benefits enormously from being seen twice, or more - something that can be expected of no popular audience; in fact, it would be correct to say it needs to be seen twice. It doesn't grab you by the lapel; it tries to suck you in." - Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (Grove, 1987).

"First time viewers are invariably startled by how weird and how brilliant is Charles Laughton's movie adaptation of Davis Grubb's riveting best-seller. It is a fascinating, truly unique work." - Danny Peary, Cult Movies 3 (Fireside).

Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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