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The film's copyright statement reads in full: "Paul Gregory Productions, a limited California partnership, consisting of Gregory Associates, Inc., a California corp., as the general partner, & Paul Gregory & Robert Mitchum, individually, as the limited partners." After the film's opening credits, Lillian Gish, as "Rachel Cooper," is seen against a black background illuminated with twinkling lights. She reads the Bible to a group of children, whose faces are seen in cutouts against the black background. She reminds them of the warning "beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing," but inwardly are ravening wolves. As she continues, "ye shall know them by their fruits," the scene changes to a group of children playing outdoors, near the Ohio River, and discovering the body of a dead woman in a cellar. Rachel again continues, "by their fruits, ye shall know them," and the film cuts to "Preacher Harry Powell," who is driving in his stolen car and talking to the Lord about what he is to do next.
According to contemporary news items, the screen rights to The Night of the Hunter, Davis Grubb's first novel, were optioned by producer Paul Gregory for $10,000 before the book, which became a best-seller, was published. Gregory, who had produced several theatrical ventures directed by noted English actor Charles Laughton, brought the book to Laughton's attention, and he agreed to make his directorial debut with the property. A January 9, 1954 Publishers Weekly article announced that if Gregory picked up the option, Grubb would be paid an additional $75,000, "plus a share in the film's profits." On December 24, 1953 Daily Variety reported that Gregory intended the film to be the first of two pictures produced annually by Paul Gregory Productions, with which Laughton was to continue to be associated. The Night of the Hunter was the first feature film produced by Gregory.
Modern sources report that Gregory attempted to interest several studios in financing and distributing the film, including Columbia and Warner Bros. According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Columbia submitted a synopsis of the novel to the PCA for their opinion in January 1954. Joseph I. Breen, the PCA's director, replied that it would be very difficult to film the novel, as "the character of Harry Powell, the intinerant revivalist, is in violation of the Production Code, inasmuch as it protrays a minister of religion as a murderer, as well as some kind of sex maniac." Breen further stated that it would be "necessary to change [Preacher's] vocation entirely, to get away from any flavor of religious hypocrisy on his part." Breen also objected to the depiction of "Ruby," who in the novel is a simple-minded teenager frequently indulging in sexual encounters, and to the lynching of Preacher. [Although the film shows Preacher secretly being taken out of the jail by the police, in the book, he is killed by the mob led by "Walt and Icey Spoon."]
In July 1954, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock worked with Gregory and Laughton to correct the problems inherent in filming the novel. In a July 30, 1954 internal memo, Shurlock stated that the "principal problem [still remaining] had to do with making certain that the leading character could in no sense be interpreted as a minister." The PCA continued to object to the lynching of Preacher, and urged Gregory and Laughton to "check the final screenplay with Mr. [George] Heimric[h] of the Protestant Broadcasting and Film Council." Although the PCA was largely satisfied with the script by August 1954, Heimrich wrote to Breen on August 23, 1954 that the commission "is considerably disturbed by this screenplay as it is written." On the same day, Heimrich also wrote to Gregory, strongly urging him not to make the film at all, stating that the character of Preacher ridiculed the Protestant religion and his actions were "distortions and misinterpretations, and will leave the impression with millions of theatre-goers that the Lord condones Killing for money."
The filmmakers continued to work with the PCA on removing any impression that Preacher was an ordained, legitimate reverend, and eventually the screenplay was approved. Protestant groups, however, continued to object to the PCA office about the picture, and on December 21, 1954, Shurlock informed a representative of the National Council on the Churches of Christ "that some people at the studio, who had seen a few scenes from the pic, were delighted that, as they reported, Laughton was getting exceedingly artistic results out of this somewhat unpromising basic material." In October 1955, the Protestant Motion Picture Council declared: "This study in human terror will be offensive to most religious people." In a modern source interview, Gregory noted that Protestant groups across the country objected to the released film and raised barriers to its exhibition.
Although some modern sources state that the filmmakers considered hiring Grubb to write the screenplay of his novel, they instead hired noted author James Agee. [Laughton did, however, continue to correspond frequently with Grubb during production and was influenced by the more than 100 sketches Grubb sent him of the characters and plot points.] Modern sources agree that the alcoholic Agee turned in a very large, mostly unusable script, which was extensively rewritten by Laughton. A July 30, 1954 memo in the PCA collection noted that Laughton was then at work rewriting the script, and modern sources report that the finished script was almost entirely Laughton's work, although he refused to take screen credit for it, even at Agee's urging. Agee died on May 16, 1955, before the film's release, and received a sole screenwriting credit on the finished picture.
Modern sources report that Gary Cooper was considered for the role of Preacher, and that both Laurence Olivier and John Carradine expressed interest in the part, while Betty Grable and Teresa Wright were considered for the role of "Willa." Modern sources also state that actresses considered for the role of Rachel included Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Agnes Moorehead, Louise Fazenda and Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife. Before production began, modern sources state, Laughton viewed many of the films of director D. W. Griffith, whom he hoped to emulate. Upon viewing the Griffith films, Laughton became interested in hiring Gish, who had worked with Griffith numerous times. Gish had not appeared in a film since the 1949 Selznick production Portrait of Jennie (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). Outtakes from The Night of the Hunter, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives, reveal that Emmett Lynn was originally cast as "Uncle Birdie Steptoe," and was replaced by James Gleason after production began. According to modern sources, Laughton was not pleased with Lynn's performance.
Although a September 10, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item credited Frank Parmenter as the second unit director of the background footage shot in West Virginia, numerous modern sources instead credit Terry Sanders. Laughton became aware of the work of Sanders and his brother Denis through an Academy-Award winning short, which they had recently made as students at the University of California, Los Angeles. Impressed with their work, Laughton hired Terry to direct the second unit, while Denis worked with the main unit as a dialogue director. Modern sources note that the aerial footage directed by Terry was obtained using a helicopter rather than an airplane, which was unusal for the time period. Atlhough a March 4, 1954 Daily Variety item said that locations would also be shot in Pennslyvania, only West Virginia was used. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, other exterior sequences were shot on location at the Rowland V. Lee Ranch in the San Fernando Valley of CA.
Toward the end of production, the filmmakers were forced to shoot around Mitchum's complicated schedule, as he had to begin work on his next film, the United Artist's picture Not as a Stranger, on September 28, 1954. Mitchum was sometimes required to work on Sundays in order to finish his work on The Night of the Hunter. One of the shots in the picture most frequently commended by critics occurs during John and Pearl's journey down the river, when they decide to spend the night in a barn instead of sleeping in the skiff. John awakens and, seeing Preacher riding in the distance, wearily comments, "Don't he never sleep?" Although it is often assumed that the shot is a special effects shot using Mitchum, it was actually accomplished on a sound stage with the use of forced perspective. The camera was set up in the barn behind Billy Chapin and focused out onto the sound stage. In the distance, Chapin's stunt double, a dwarf dressed as Preacher, rode a small pony. The angle of the camera made it look as if Billy was gazing at a full-grown man riding in the distance.
According to modern sources, the startling underwater shot of Willa's corpse was accomplished by fitting a mannequin with a rubber mask of Shelley Winters' face, and shooting underwater in the water tank at Republic Studios. Although a September 13, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Don Cash, who is credited onscreen as the film's makeup artist, cast the mask of Winters, modern sources credit makeup artist Maurice Seiderman with the mask. Modern sources add the following names to the crew credits: Camera Operator Bud Martino; Assistant Camera Sy Hoffberg and Robert B. Hauser; Gaffer James Potevin; Orch Arthur Morton; Singer of "Lullaby" Kitty White; and Singer of "Pretty Fly" Betty Benson.
On October 11, 1954, Hollywood Reporter ran an ad, created by Saul Bass, announcing that the picture had completed principle production on October 7, 1954. The striking ad, featuring Preacher's tattoed hand clutching "Pearl's" doll, was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts as one of the fifty best advertisements of 1954, according to a January 31, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item. On July 19, 1955, Daily Variety reported that Lloyd T. Binford, the controversial head of the Memphis, TN censor board, had banned the film. Binford called it "the rawest I've ever seen," according to the article, even though he had not actually viewed the picture. Modern sources state that the picture received an "X," or adults only, certificate in Great Britain.
The film's world premiere was held in Gregory's hometown of Des Moines, IL on July 26, 1955 as a benefit for the local YMCA. The day of the premiere was declared "Paul Gregory Day" and featured a parade and live telecast on the Tonight Show television program. The picture received varied reviews, although the majority of them praised the acting, particularly that of Mitchum, who later considered his role as Preacher to be one of his finest performances. Many critics expressed opinions similar to that of the Life reviewer, who stated: "If sometimes [The Night of the Hunter] strains too hard at being simple and winds up being pretentious, it still is one of the year's most interesting and provocative films." The Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest reviewer added, "It's a fascinating picture, possibly difficult to sell but worth any effort to do so." New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, while stating that the picture suffered from Laughton's "inexperience," expressed great interest in seeing his next picture, which Crowther felt would "hit harder."
As noted above, over eight hours of outtakes of The Night of the Hunter were preserved and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The outtakes, as well as a large amount of written documentation about The Night of the Hunter, were donated by Lanchester to AFI in the 1970s, and the film was subsequently given to UCLA. UCLA also restored the picture, and the restoration had its premiere in October 2001 at the New York Film Festival. The outtakes show that, contrary to typical film technique, it was rarely "cut" by Laughton, who infrequently turned off the camera between takes, instead preferring to keep the camera rolling and direct his actors on camera before calling for another take. The outtakes call into question the assertions of several modern sources that Laughton had little patience with the child actors and frequently left the direction of them to Mitchum, as they show Laughton working closely and carefully with the children.
Although Laughton and Gregory intended to work together again on a film of The Naked and the Dead, and Laughton prepared a screenplay with the Sanders brothers, the project was never realized. Because The Night of the Hunter was not a financial success, it was difficult for Gregory to raise fund for the second project with Laughton as director, and Laughton, wounded by the failure of his first film, began to lose interest. The Naked and the Dead was instead directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Bros. in 1958. Although Laughton continued to act in feature films, he never directed another one. The Night of the Hunter also represented the last film score written by Walter Schumann, who died in 1958.
The picture has become a cult classic since its release, and is widely regarded by film critics and historians and modern filmmakers as one of the most important pictures of the 1950s. Preacher's "LOVE" and "HATE" tattoos have become a well-known cultural reference and are often imitated or parodied in films and television. In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and was number 34 on the list of AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills. Grubb's novel also served as the basis of the 1991 ABC-TV movie Night of the Hunter, which was directed by David Greene and starred Richard Chamberlain as Preacher and Diana Scarwid as Willa. Unlike the 1955 film, the 1991 television film did not include the character of Rachel.